Rugby Union: The new age of Wilkinson

Andrew Longmore meets the fledgling hero England has craved to kickstart the game
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The Independent Online
IT SEEMS a little young to be making a comeback. But then Jonny Wilkinson defies the cliches of youth. Last year, he became the youngest English rugby international since Henri Laird of Harlequins in 1927, yet, face to face, he is shockingly ageless, radiating a mature confidence born not of the bravado of the teenager but the thoroughness and savvy of the old pro. In his dreams, Wilkinson has been playing professional rugby since the age of 12.

For the future of English rugby, there is a deep assurance in the solid young figure filling an impossibly tiny chair in the bar of Newcastle Falcons rugby club. At binocular range, Wilkinson seems a slight figure, squatter than his England centre partner, Jeremy Guscott, but too frail for the core of England's midfield defence. The fashionable Tintinesque quiff heightened the sense of innocence. Alan Tait, shaken to his size 10s by a bulldozer tackle in the desperate closing minutes of the narrow victory against Scotland, might beg to differ; the bells have only just stopped ringing in the ears of the Irish centres.

It is that unglamorous aspect of his game, not the confidence of his place-kicking or the slickness of some of his handling, which has brought knowing smiles to the lips of the England coaching staff. Phil Larder, the defensive coach, last saw such committed tackling on the playing fields of Wigan Warriors and Bradford Bulls; Rob Andrew, director of rugby at Newcastle, has to stifle his maternal instinct. He wants to tell him to be careful. Andrew was no shrinking violet himself, but he never relished the physical combat in the way his 19-year-old prodigy does.

Seeing Wilkinson at close quarters is to understand the misconception. Billed as 12st 9lb in the Five Nations programme, he now tips the scales at "just on" 14st, a healthy bargaining weight from which to parly for the hurly burly middle ground of international rugby. The shoulders are broad and deep, stretching the fabric of his loose fleece, the face handsome, the blue eyes strong, the gaze firm and the smile which beams out of the official photo has a "make my day" menace to it. Sport is no laughing matter.

Asked where he learned to tackle like a rugby league forward, Wilkinson mutters something about going on a coaching course a couple of years back. "I watched Australian rugby league religiously and you can pick up a lot just by watching the way those guys tackle. I've worked hard on that aspect of my game, but I absolutely love that side of it, the one-on-one battle against whoever you're running against. It's about natural aggression, whether that's winning the whole game or a tiny little confrontation that lasts half a second."

But let's rewind a year. In the rack at Wilkinson's Newcastle home is a horror video which ought to have a censor's tag pinned to it: "Australia 76 England 0, not to be viewed late at night by under-age England rugby players." Wilkinson has yet to watch his international debut, but those who did reckon they are still picking the fragments of a dazzling reputation from the Brisbane turf. Without too much conviction, Wilkinson says he enjoyed the first half-hour and has erased the rest. But Dave Alred recalls Wilkinson's first place kick that night. "Ten or Fifteen metres to the right of the upright and he took too long. He knew that." The kick slipped by, the score was 0-0. Welcome to international rugby.

Ten months on, with two rehabilitating Five Nations games behind him, Wilkinson talks quietly about a debut which would have shattered a more tender psyche. "I was upset, I just wanted to get away and sort it out. There was never a question it would crush me. What I took out of it was the realisation that I've got miles and miles to go before I can become one of the better players in the game. I was actually quite excited by the prospect of going out there and working on what I didn't know were weaknesses." Passers-by to Farnham Rugby club in the weeks after his return would have seen a solitary figure idly and repeatedly kicking a rugby ball between the posts. This is Jonny Wilkinson on holiday. But there was a touch of therapy there too. "I went out kicking every day, two or three hours. My mind was off rugby, but I was just going out there feeling good about myself and doing what I enjoy. I don't mind kicking four balls and going and collecting them however far they go."

Though brought up in a close-knit family, with an elder brother a convenient foil for his sporting prowess - tennis and cricket besides rugby - Wilkinson has the love of loneliness which characterises all good place-kickers, that ability to dive into a self-contained womb of concentration at the blow of a whistle. Officials at Newcastle shake their head at the number of times they look out over the ground from their windows to see Wilkinson practising his art. Alred lists the attributes of a great place-kicker: Attitude, Application and Ability. "But in the right order, that's the key thing." His standards are measured by the pressure kick with which Rob Andrew levelled the scores at 21-21 in the World Cup quarter-final against Australia in South Africa. This kick is going over, no question. Alred senses the same aggression in Wilkinson. "Like Rob, he sets his own standards. That kick was the result of a lot of hard work and desire."

It is only a matter of time before Wilkinson assumes the fly-half role for England he has occupied for most of his glittering schools career. His contract with Newcastle ends in the summer and though the announcement last week of new financial backing has eased the concerns for the club's future, rugby's Michael Owen, as one of the tabloids dubbed him that morning, is not short of options. If the terms are right, he says, he will stay at Newcastle where he is happy; if not, he will move on. "It's important to give myself the best chance of staying in the game as long as possible and being in the best possible form." Clive Woodward, the England coach, would say a hearty amen to that.

In the meantime, a dangerous French backlash and an erratic Welsh side stand between England and the grand slam. The elation of Lansdowne Road has quickly faded, buried by the need to summon sinews for the French at Twickenham on Saturday and the draining rhythms of Five Nations rugby. "It's the nervous build-up, the tension before a game," he says. "Then the complete exhaustion after a game and the come down. It's hard to get back up for it again." He will manage somehow. He has another 10 years of it ahead of him.