It was only a few years ago when a friend of mine was at one of those typical grounds in west Wales with a council estate on one side, a stream on the other and the beginnings of a mountain at one end. He was briefly watching a game of mini-rugby, conducted according to clear but improvised rules. One of the boys showed distinct promise, with a dummy here and a sidestep there.
''And who are you being today?'' my friend asked him.
"Iain Balshaw,'' the boy replied.
Gerald and Barry, Gareth and Benny, would have been outside is memory; Bleddyn even more so. Balshaw had recently been the principal annihilator of Wales at Cardiff. In the circumstances he was a reasonable choice of model.
Who, a couple of years later, would the boy have in mind today? It would not, we may be fairly sure, be Balshaw again. True, he did not have a bad trip to Australia. And, with Dan Luger off to Perpignan and out of sorts, and Ben Cohen not looking quite the force he was on home territory, Balshaw may yet re-establish himself among the England back three. He certainly deserves to. But then, justice plays a limited role in rugby, as it does in life.
Jonny Wilkinson is a more promising selection. Indeed, such is the power of publicity that every small boy in the four home nations who likes the game probably wants to be Wilkinson. The trouble is that the scope for emulation is restricted.
The first necessity is to be able to tackle like a tank. This is a sign of the way the game has changed. While centres - from Claude Davey through Ray Gravell to Scott Gibbs - could base their approach on the destructive tackle, outside-halves were not meant to be nearly so rough.
Indeed, such was the delicacy of their skills, and their value to the side, that they were not expected to tackle at all - or, for that matter, to be tackled themselves if it could possibly be avoided. One of the flankers would be charged with the duty of protecting the outside-half from assaults on his constitution, if necessary by illegal means.
The second necessity for any aspirational Wilkinson is to be able to kick like a mortar. The trouble here is that in most forms of mini-rugby kicking plays little part, perhaps rightly so. It is a solitary pursuit. Wilkinson practises for three hours a day: concert pianists can practise for seven.
I read last week that, if Jonny Wilkinson is no Barry John, Barry John was no Jonny Wilkinson either. For the reasons I have given, this is certainly true of tackling. But the view does less than justice to John's skills with the boot. We tend to remember him as a wraith-like figure who could float past opponents simply by showing them the ball. In fact he was a superb line-kicker as well. Not only that, his points record in New Zealand in 1971 and his pre-eminence in the Lions' side derived from his place-kicking. Here he was the first leading player to use the round-the-corner method which is now standard.
Even so, I feel a little sad that the model for our youth, excellent player though he is in several respects, is renowned chiefly for his ability to kick goals. I am ambivalent about a state of affairs where the result of a match can depend on a kick which is itself the consequence of an incident where, first, the facts are unclear and, second, the interpretation of those facts is a matter for argument.
Most intelligent observers would like to see the number of offences for which a penalty kick can be awarded to be drastically reduced, with an indirect free-kick or a scrum awarded instead. They would also like to see the value of the kick reduced to two points or even to one.
But these are not the views of the leading players. Without exception, every one of those I have talked to, while regarding a punch on the nose as a reasonable hazard of the game, views with horror such offences as killing the ball. The opinions of the men at the coalface should be respected.
All this does not apply to the drop-kick with which Wilkinson won the World Cup final. Afterwards some Australians said it should be reduced to one point; I can remember the time when a drop was worth four points to a try's three. This may have been an over-generous ratio, but I am not sure that the value of a drop should not now be restored to four, because of the high level of skill involved. This would be good news for all the young Wilkinsons of the land, and, come to that, for Wilkinson himself.Reuse content