Rugby coaches from every corner of the union landscape routinely describe Jonny Wilkinson, the outside-half who put the "king" in Kingston Park and was treated like royalty after England wrenched the World Cup from Australian hands in 2003, as one in a thousand. Unfortunately for the reigning champions of the global game, it has been more a case of none in a thousand. None in 1,191 days, to be precise. The period separating Wilkinson's last act in the white shirt of his country - a twopenny-halfpenny drop-goal that earned him and his colleagues riches beyond the dreams of avarice - and his sudden reappearance in this weekend's Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham, has seemed almost as long, and very nearly as futile, as the eternal wait for Godot.
Maybe it takes a sportsman of Wilkinson's stature to persuade us that eternities are finite after all. He has certainly taught us the value of patience, for it is difficult to recall a comparable feat of perseverance in the face of adversity. The ravaged nerves in the neck, the blood-clotted biceps, the mangled knee ligaments, the serious groin condition, the lacerated kidney ... through all this and more, the finest goal-kicker ever to take aim at a set of rugby posts never once hinted that he felt he might be fighting a losing battle.
And now he has won the battle, he can legitimately say: "I told you so." Except he will not, of course. Wilkinson is not one of life's talkers; on the rare occasions he lifts the veil and utters a few words for public consumption, none of them fit into the "look at me" category. He may play the guitar, but he never blows his own trumpet.
To the legions who gloried in Jonny-boy's cathartic contribution in Sydney a little over three years ago, England's post-tournament slippage is wholly explained by his absence. They are only half right. There are a number of myths surrounding Wilkinson, the most misleading of which concerns his performance at the last World Cup. Actually, he played pretty poorly for much of the competition - not simply by his own standards, but by the standards of any stand-off coveting the "world-class" label. Remember Samoa, when even his kicking let him down? Remember Wales, when Mike Catt was sent on to save Wilkinson from himself. It is a truth that dare not speak its name, but the hero of 2003 was a gnat's crotchet away from being its villain.
There again, his efforts in New Zealand and Australia the previous summer, added to those in a Grand Slam campaign of complete authority and a 2002 autumn series in which he scored more than 50 points in three games against the superpowers of the southern hemisphere, justified all the claims that would be made on his behalf. For those eight months or so, he was the best of the best. He was lauded then the way Daniel Carter is now. The All Blacks themselves would have killed for Wilkinson in those pre-Carter days.
Can he conceivably play at such a level this weekend, after a mere 50 minutes of competitive rugby in the 13 weeks since suffering the damage to his kidney during a Premiership game for Newcastle against Bristol? Of course not. Wilkinson is blessed with unusual gifts, both physical and temperamental, but he is not Merlin. Can he get back to something resembling the optimum before the defence of the World Cup begins in France this coming September? This is a more sensible question, for at least the premise is rooted in the realms of the possible.
Richard Hill, the Bristol coach, is no mean judge of a player and when he talks of Wilkinson's contribution on that ultimately painful night at Kingston Park in November, he does so with the kind of pleasure befitting a man who once played in a World Cup final for England. "I have to say Jonny was astonishingly good against us," he said. "He was the difference between the teams. I would call it a world-class effort, even though he wasn't match-hardened. Certainly, he played at a level way above that of any other England-qualified No 10."
So there we have it: a match-soft Wilkinson is better, by miles, than a match-hard anyone else. The only stand-off considered by the England head coach, Brian Ashton, to be capable of giving him a run for his money, Charlie Hodgson of Sale, cannot run anywhere at all at present, thanks to the knee injury he suffered during the narrow victory over South Africa two months ago. The others in the coach's orbit - Toby Flood, Shane Geraghty, Ryan Lamb, Danny Cipriani - are babes in arms who will look and learn, rather than do and die.
It is a high-risk selection, plainly. Lest we forget, Wilkinson has played international rugby since dropping that goal against the Wallabies - for the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand a couple of summers ago. He was injured before that little outing, too, only to be picked in considerable haste, and on precious little evidence, by Sir Clive Woodward. How did he go? Not terribly well. He was as brave and committed as ever, he tackled his weight, he kicked a goal or two. But he was not the Wilkinson of 18 months previously.
One half of back-foot rugby against Leicester is not, on the face of it, sufficient preparation for 80 minutes of Six Nations intensity against the Scots - a game in which Wilkinson will be asked to draw the sting from marauding opponents by playing a perfect strategic hand. It would be unfair to expect too much of him; indeed, it can be argued that Ashton is asking too much already. If, however, he emerges in one piece and plays all five games in the tournament, England's hopes of retaining the World Cup will look a lot brighter than they did 24 hours ago.Reuse content