'Gifted one' worth his weight in gold

In the bars of Newcastle the Wilkinson disciples watch their hero
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The Independent Online

It was 8.30am at Kingston Park, the home of Newcastle Falcons, and the No 10 bay was empty in the "players only" section of the car park. So was the space bearing the plaque "Rob Andrew, director of rugby".

On Radio Five Live, the Falcons' director happened to be talking about his supposedly troubled No 10. "The only good thing, for me, about all this criticism, is that Jonny doesn't take any notice of it," Andrew said. "Jonny Wilkinson is Jonny Wilkinson. Nobody is going to change him."

Outside the west stand, where the Falcons fans were arriving for a big screen showing of the match, Duncan Madsen nodded his agreement. "Look," he said. "Nobody is a perfect ten. And when you have chief sportswriters, who frankly don't know their arse from their elbow when it comes to rugby, telling Jonny Wilkinson how to play, well, I'm sorry...it just doesn't rub."

Madsen happens to be a sportswriter himself. He is rugby union correspondent of the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle. But he knows what he writes about. He played hooker for Gosforth, as the Falcons were formerly known, when they won the John Player Cup in 1976 and 1977. He also won 14 caps for Scotland.

"The first time I saw Jonny was on the training field here when he was 18," Madsen reflected. "He was pointed out to me and I said, 'that kid will play for England.' He did so by the end of the season.

"At the time people were asking who was going to take over from Rob as No 10 here. There was some talk of Thomas Castaignède, but it was obvious who was going to. This kid was."

There was much talk last week of the grown kid being eclipsed in the Sydney semi-final by Frédéric Michalak. As it happened, the only Jonny Wilkinson subjected to a good stuffing was the one perched on the table in front of the screen at Kingston Park.

"It's been touched by the gifted one," Julie Gooderson said of the teddy bear clad in an England No 10 shirt. A Twickenham steward and secretary of the Falcons Supporters' Club, she had a front row seat 11,000 miles from the Telstra Stadium - at the office where the gifted one has put in all that daily graft, perfecting his formula for bisecting the H.

After seven minutes the first drop goal sailed between the posts, greeted by cries of "get in." There were shrieks of dismay when Serge Betsen made his try-scoring surge, and again when the unstuffed Jonny was off the target with his first place kick of the day.

There was a long and joyous "Y-e-e-e-s," though, when successful kick No 5 made it 15-7 after 53 minutes. "Game, set and match," Duncan Madsen declared. And by the end, it was Wilkinson 24 France 7. "Jonny was essentially the difference," the man from the Chronicle concluded. "I mean, 24 points, It tells its own story. He's worth his weight in gold - then a bit more."

Julie Gooderson agreed: "You know how the Aussies are saying, 'is that all you've got?' Well, sometimes that's all you need."

Outside, in the car park, the bays for the goalkicking king and for the Falcons' director were still vacant.

On the radio an exasperated Andrew was being asked whether his No 10 should be knighted. He did have the order of the boot in mind but with regard to the Wallabies and next Saturday's final.

"If we have to win it through the forwards and Jonny's kicking, then just do it," he said.