Rugby Union: Wilkinson's modesty is familiar and eerie

The centre's classy display started long before the game and continued well afterwards. By Richard Williams
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HE STOOD against a wall an hour after the final whistle on Saturday, hemmed in by a couple of dozen reporters, responding to their questions with a proper measure of eye-contact, with frankness and self-deprecation, and with scrupulous attention to the point. No evasion, no jokes.

At 19, Jonny Wilkinson had just won England's match against France off his own boot, striking seven successful penalty kicks from seven attempts with absolute assurance. Confronting England's most feared European opponents for the first time, he never looked like missing.

It was the end of a day that had begun soon after breakfast, when he and Dave Alred, the squad's kicking coach, had taken a few balls out on to the Twickenham pitch and spent an hour at practice, kicking from short distances and at angles so tight that Wilkinson had only a metre at which to aim. An hour before the kick-off, they came back and repeated the exercise. Later, when Alred discussed his pupil, one phrase kept coming up. "Just like Rob," he kept saying, when trying to describe the boy's willingness to apply himself to the task of maximising a natural talent.

"His father brought him to me at 16," Alred said, "and he's worked as hard as anyone I've ever worked with. He's like Rob and Paul [Grayson] in that they're all willing to stay out there and do the tough bit mentally. And kicking is something they enjoy doing, just like other people enjoy hitting a golf ball."

Not until he swaps his inside-centre's jersey for England's No 10 shirt, perhaps in time for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup, will we know just how closely Jonny Wilkinson resembles Rob Andrew. But there is already something familiar about the almost eerie modesty that England's latest sporting prodigy displays in public. "The kicking is fine," he said solemnly, "but it's just one small part of my game and I've got a lot to learn."

He was keen to pay tribute to the way older players had helped him find his place in the squad. "I've been eased into it as opposed to pushed in," he said, "thanks to the experienced guys like Jerry Guscott and Mike Catt and Paul Grayson."

This is one of the qualities he also shares with Michael Owen, last summer's phenomenon of another World Cup. Others include not just the schoolboy good looks but the instinctive neatness of movement, the industry and the decisiveness that combine to create an unmistakeable presence on the field.

And there is a precocious gravity that might even be unique. It was impossible not to be struck by something Wilkinson said last week: "My whole rugby life is about dedication, application and respect for others."

On a day when virtually the only impressive thing about England was the result they achieved, Wilkinson provided his team with a guarantee of class. Within the first 20 minutes, he had punished three moments of French indiscipline with straightish kicks from between 25 and 30 metres. The first two kicks were mishits," Alred pointed out. "But he'd got the lines absolutely right. And it's all about getting the line right, both in your leg and in your head."

Wilkinson's economical side-footed action was the result of hundreds of hours of practice, according to Alred. "When he came to me he was a typical sidewinder, not unlike Rob. But Rob was already 30 when I started to work with him. Jonny was 16. Obviously it's much better to begin with a player at that age. I tried to help him evolve a style that gets him putting more power through the ball in the direction he wants it to go. There are a lot of natural kickers who kick through the ball, and there's only a small piece of their foot applying power. It's just like golf. You have to get your weight through the ball. But, I tell you, it's all the result of hard work. There's no secret."

After Wilkinson's ordeal during on tour in Australia last summer, Alred got him to speed up his kicking a little in order to reduce the possibility of freezing over the ball. Now he is impressed by the way the player's temperament produces the kind of consistency we saw on Saturday. "He's the kind who gets very annoyed and aggressive when it's not going quite right," Alred said. "Some of them just shrug and tell themselves it'll be all right on the night. But Jonny, like Paul Grayson, will stay out there until he's got it right."

But how will he respond to the inevitable run of bad form with the boot? "If he carries on like this, I don't see why he should ever have a bad run."

Wilkinson himself claims to suffer from nerves and sleepless nights during the week before an international, but no one - least of all his opponents - would ever know. "I try to keep as composed as possible," he said, "and I try to go for the right decisions, not being forced to make rash ones under pressure."

Now doesn't that, too, remind you of England's last match-winning outside- half? As, on Saturday, did his touch-kicking from the hand, which was a model of prudence and reliability but lacked the sense of adventure that Mike Catt brought to his raking touch-finders. When Clive Woodward finally decides to make the switch, we'll learn how deep that prudence runs, and how much of a boy's spirit lives behind that mature facade.