Rugby Union: Labour of love for Wilkinson

Five Nations: England's inspirational teenager has spent hours on practice ground before facing France today

THE YOUNG cricketers of Lord Wandsworth's College in Hampshire are about to embark on a pre-season trip to Barbados, where they will doubtless experience all the traditional joys of Caribbean life: palm- shaded beaches, a turquoise sea and a complimentary visit to the local hospital courtesy of some hot-shot fast bowler with a three-mile run-up. Happily for the tourists, their most celebrated old boy is taking an almost paternal interest in their well-being. "Jonny has been in touch," says Mark Russell, the teacher charged with guiding the party through the minefields of Bridgetown. "He's stressed the importance of focus, commitment and visualisation."

Big words and big concepts, especially for a 19-year-old. "Jonny" is Jonny Wilkinson, perhaps the most complete and certainly the most discussed rugby back to emerge from the English shires since Jeremy Guscott first swivelled his silken hips for Bath a decade and a half ago. According to Russell, Wilkinson is both a natural and inspirational communicator who speaks the kind of language a sixth-form sportsman understands. So he should. As recently as July 1997, he was one of them.

But Wilkinson, a talented linguist who left school with a top-grade A Level in French in his academic portfolio, also speaks the language of professionalism; indeed, he talks so fluently about attitude and application and all the other abstractions in the full-time player's lexicon that he might be chatting away in his mother tongue. "I'm simply not happy taking the field on a Saturday unless I know I've put in the requisite amount of work on the training field," he said at Twickenham early this week, relaxed and confident as he chewed the fat over his first meeting with a grown-up Tricolore back division this afternoon. "I hate playing a game unless I've prepared properly. I don't take short cuts and I don't try to fool myself. It's all about being ready and, to get yourself ready, you have to put in the effort. It takes time."

Ah, the time factor. Wilkinson's fanatical, almost masochistic attachment to the rigours of the practice paddock is already the stuff of rugby legend and few of those who have worked closely with him are short of an illustrative anecdote or instructive one-liner. "When it was light, he would practise; when it was dark, he would work," recalls Russell. "But that's Jonny all over. He put a vast amount of time and effort into everything he did at school. He was not the sort to push himself forward or blow his own trumpet, but his determination was far beyond anything I'd ever encountered in a pupil. As captain of cricket, he opened both batting and bowling. You can imagine how he batted: it was real `They shall not pass' stuff."

Yet, before every rugby-playing schoolkid in Christendom sidesteps the breakfast table and heads for the nearest set of goalposts, they would do well to remember that there is a whole lot more to this Owenesque man-child than an unquenchable thirst for hard labour. The overwhelming majority of red rose wannabes could fling cut-out passes from now until doomsday and still not reproduce anything remotely resembling the sublime delivery with which Wilkinson freed Matt Perry for a memorable try in Dublin a fortnight ago. That particular moment of genius was one per cent perspiration and 99 per-cent inspiration.

Not that England's new inside centre and outside-half-in-waiting is easily drawn into self-congratulation (Russell's description of Wilkinson as the most self-effacing of high achievers is perfectly apposite). "Yes, I'd say the try was a big moment for the team, but there were many other, less obvious aspects of our performance against Ireland that were every bit as satisfying," he pointed out in his quiet, analytical fashion.

"Speaking personally, I felt far happier than after the Scotland game a fortnight previously because I'd been more involved, both with ball in hand and in the physical sense. The Scottish midfield played pretty well against us - they were inventive, they had real imagination and some very clever ideas - but the Irish were tough and ruthless and in our faces all afternoon. Perhaps it was because we were playing at Lansdowne Road and trying to deal with a unique atmosphere, but the intensity seemed greater than in the Calcutta Cup match.

"Was Matt's try born on the training field? To an extent, I suppose, but rehearsals only take you so far at this level of rugby. There comes a point in every game where you have to react to the things you see going on in front of you and as far as that try was concerned, the particular situation cried out for a miss-pass going right. In many ways, the credit should go to the forwards who laid the foundations by driving the ball upfield. It's a pleasure to play behind a high-class pack operating at their best. Any back should be able to play off the kind of platform we were given in Dublin."

It is a matter of public record that Wilkinson did not have the luxury of any sort of platform when the England selectors dropped him head first into the smelly stuff during last summer's trek around the badlands of the southern hemisphere. Having marked his full international debut by missing a couple of early kicks against an unsympathetic Wallaby outfit who politely responded by running in 76 unanswered points, he was then injured in a brutal opening Test with the All Blacks in Dunedin.

Anyone who saw a white-faced Wilkinson sitting quietly with his father in the least populated corner of the Cape Town Airport departure lounge as a punch-drunk party wended its less than merry way back to Blighty might legitimately have wondered whether he would ever recover from the humiliation of it all. For the first and only time in his brief top-flight career, the boy looked his age.

He does not look it now. Sturdy, compact, low-slung, muscular and the very picture of rude health, he can face the French today secure in the knowledge that he has kicked Five Nations goals under real pressure, constructed a magical try with all the guile and subtlety of a fresh-faced Mike Gibson and tackled two esteemed British Lions - his former Newcastle clubmate, Alan Tait, and his would-be nemesis, Keith Wood - into something approaching oblivion. There is enough ice dripping through the Wilkinson veins to sink another Titanic.

Much of that sub-zero unflappability derives from the umbilical relationship he has formed with Rob Andrew, his mentor on Tyneside. "I can't say I grew up worshipping any rugby union heroes - to be frank, I soaked up more about defence, in particular, from watching the great Australian league sides of recent years on television - but I can vividly remember the England team that played such wonderful stuff in 1990 and then went on to complete the Grand Slam a year later. They were so dominant at that time and Rob played a big part in making the most of that dominance.

"I've learned so much from him over the last couple of seasons: how to deal with the most pressurised situations, how to keep a cool head when others are letting it all slip, how to compete against the most competitive people around. Also, he's taught me how to handle myself both on and off the pitch.

"Talk to any of the coaches who worked with Rob and they'll tell you that he sweated for the things he achieved. I can instinctively relate to that because it's my approach, too. No matter how well things may go on a Saturday, there's still work to be done on the Monday."

So will Wilkinson re-sign for Newcastle when his first ever professional contract expires in June? "We're talking," he said, as guarded as ever.

"It's very early days and all I can say right now is that I'll think very carefully about any offer the club might make me. If I stay, I want to stay for the right reasons. If I move on, it will only be because I feel my rugby will benefit as a result." Spoken like a true pro.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
British musician Mark Ronson arrives for the UK premiere of the film 'Mortdecai'
music
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Sport
footballBrighton vs Arsenal match report
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
News
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us