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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.