James Lawton: Full-blooded competitor flies in face of fashion by relying on simple values

No one has pursued performance with such application
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The Independent Online

For Jonny Wilkinson you had, for one surreal moment, to read "Harry Potter". For rugby you had to think "quidditch". Scotland's aggrieved coach, Frank Hadden, would surely agree that some kind of extra sorcery was involved when the video judge was persuaded that Wilkinson was in full levitation when he grounded the ball from around the corner flag for the try which, however flawed legally, made an amazing statement about the character of its owner.

It said that Wilkinson was, as far as any single sportsman can be, much more than the potential redeemer of England's pitiful descent into futility after the World Cup triumph he delivered with unforgettable nerve. Not only did he utterly vindicate the new coach Brian Ashton's eminently practical decision to return him at the first opportunity to a rudderless team, he also redefined his place in the nation's sport.

It is as the supreme competitor, the man who is ultimately serious about what he does and because of this creates an example that is both precious and unique, particularly in the wake of a disastrous year of English team sport when the world champions of rugby, the Ashes winners of cricket and the "golden generation" of football all displayed gut-wrenching levels of incompetence at the highest levels of international competition.

Long before the end of Wilkinson's 27-point dominance of the Calcutta Cup, a trophy that was surrendered so guilelessly a year ago at Murrayfield, it was impossible not to understand the particular satisfaction that showed on the face of Ashton as he sat in the stand and saw his best hopes realised.

Ashton's expression was of a man who had not fluttered wildly and won but had played the odds in the manner of the hardest-nosed pro. He knew what he would get from Wilkinson. He knew that when the player said that he felt he was fit enough to face the challenge there were no pretty illusions, no willingness to trade a week of celebrity focus for the possibility that he might let down anyone - his team-mates, his country and not least himself.

Certainly a body that had submitted to so many wounds over the past three years was at risk, but this will always be so given the nature of his game - and, in his case, the hazard will always be negotiable from a point of scrupulous honesty.

Here comparisons were both odious and inevitable. Consider, for example, the parody of astute selection conducted by the selectors of the cricket and football teams, how so many England cricketers, and most notably the mentally troubled Marcus Trescothick, travelled to Australia without anything like medical guarantees. Who could forget the idiocy of Sven Goran Eriksson's Pollyanna belief that Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney could be anything like their best in the recent World Cup finals - or the fact that David Beckham went to two major tournaments, the World Cup of 2002 and the European Championship of 2004, palpably unfit.

If anyone doubted it, Wilkinson proved at Twickenham that he is simply too rigorous a competitor, and too honest a man, to willingly contribute to such departures from professional values. This was his supreme glory on a great comeback day. He missed one tackle and two conversion attempts and some of his early tactical kicking was eclipsed by some lacerating probes from his counterpart, Dan Parks. All else, however, was stunning in its relevance and grasp of possibilities.

The blood that poured from the mouth wound that required 14 stitches was not so much a handicap as a dramatic effect, emphasising Wilkinson's readiness to get on with the job in all circumstances. As blood streaked his face, it was easy to recall how an England footballer of fine, combative instincts was once deeply embarrassed by the after-match comments of his manager, Sir Bobby Robson.

Terry Butcher suffered a head cut in a match in Stockholm that produced quite a bit of blood and required a bandage but brought no great debilitating effects. However, Robson declared with more enthusiasm than judgement: "VCs have been earned for less." What Wilkinson was saying at Twickenham was that the blood wasn't a matter for honour, just some basic medical attention.

Later, when he talked in the classically modest tones of earlier national sports heroes like Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton and Stanley Matthews, there was another reason to remember that the canonisation he received after his World Cup-conquering drop kick, the torrent of sponsorship and acclaim - "Jonny," said a placard held up by a young lady of impeccable breeding when he was part of the heroes' procession through London, "I want to bear your children" - was based entirely on his performance and demeanour on and off the field.

No one has chased celebrity less enthusiastically, or pursued performance with such relentless application.

This, as much as the gravity-defying leap into a new corner of our imagination at the Twickenham corner flag, was the understanding which overwhelmed all other reaction to his return to the international arena.

No, he is not the world's best half-back. No, his creative impulses and tactical reading are not at any sublime level. It is easy to forget that both he and England's World Cup drive were rescued by the injection of Mike Catt in the quarter-final against Wales, a decision which the great Welsh wing Gerald Davies was certain would be seen as the best decision of Sir Clive Woodward's entire rugby career. It also needs to be said that in terms of England's prospects in the Six Nations and the World Cup, the significance of what Wilkinson did on Saturday - and this also applies to the generally impressive performances of such as Andy Farrell, Jason Robinson and, not least, the scrum-half Harry Ellis - can be more clearly gauged after action against the likes of Ireland, France and Wales.

In the meantime, though, there need to be no misgivings about the extent of the acclaim heaped upon Wilkinson after the almost formal subjection of the Scots.

Wilkinson indeed flew like young Potter. It may be an unlikely metaphor for a sportsman so grounded in the reality - and the limit - of his gifts. But then look again at a re-run of his extraordinary "try". Was he not indeed trying his hand at quidditch?