Launch of the new model Wilko: better by smiles

Pleasure is now paramount after the wilderness years
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The Independent Online

It could have been a bad move, pointing out to Jonny Wilkinson that the season ahead would take him up to 10 years as a Newcastle Falcon and theoretically qualify him for a testimonial. In the two years, nine months and seven injuries that he has spent away from the England scene, the poor fellow has had far too much time on his hands in which to analyse the deepest meaning of rugby life, and to calculate precisely how much of the action has passed him by.

As it happened, the thought of becoming a senior servant brought a little light relief after 20 minutes or so of earnest introspection at the Falcons' media day. "There are ways of winning things," the Newcastle No 10 said, elaborating on what kept him as part of the Kingston Park furniture. "Like when England won the World Cup - in my era, back in my day."

It brought down the house. Wilkinson might have collected more than his fair share of battle wounds since his right boot won the war of the World Cup final at the Telstra Stadium on 22 November 2003, but he is no Clive Dunn or John Laurie.

Sure, the day when Jonny landed that drop goal and Johnno lifted the cup is becoming a bit sepia-tinged now, what with the next World Cup kicking off for England in Lens in a year and 12 days' time. Jonny, though, is veteran of only 27. With a fresh season ahead, and a refreshed body to work with, he has a fresh outlook on his rugby life; not as a member of the old guard but as a would-be young gun.

"Three years is a long time," Wilkinson reflected, when asked about his England ambitions. "England rugby, for me, is not the norm any more. I'm just like the lads coming through - Taity and the younger lads who are looking to get into that environment. I'm the same."

From the West Stand at Kingston Park on Friday night, it looked a rather healthy perspective as the Jonny Come Lately set about his game with the same youthful zest as his cherubic outside partner, not the injured Taity - Mathew Tait - but the gushing Toby Flood. As the Falcons got to grips with their pre-season friendly against the Glasgow Warriors, though, there was the old Wilkinson assurance too. And the touches of class.

There was the shimmy and the shuffle that ushered in Joe Shaw for a try in the right corner. There was the touchline conversion - just the one, mind. And then, just when one of the backroom boys had been on to magic-sponge his left calf, there was the walloping Wilkinson tackle that threatened to shunt Andy Henderson halfway back to Bearsden.

There was nothing flash in the 40 minutes before he departed to save some competitive oomph for the Falcons' Premiership opener at Northampton a week today, but enough to maintain the momentum of the late-season comeback last term. And from the moment Wilkinson rose from the replacements' bench to turn the tide against Sale at Kingston Park in April, with some rapier cut-out passes, a couple of piercing touch-finders and a boat-load of perceptive play, it was clear that the X-factor of his extra-special nous was one element that England, ailing England, could ill afford to be without for very much longer.

Not that Wilkinson sees himself as ready-made for international re-selection, despite his inclusion in Andy Robinson's 55-man élite squad. "At the end of last season it was great to get involved in some games in which we scored a lot of points and played some good rugby, but it was nowhere near enough to let me know where I stand," he said. "I need a run of games in which I can evaluate my performance.

"It's my responsibility now to show that I'm capable of playing at international level, and that I'm enjoying it. I get no satisfaction about being named in squads. I know deep down what I want to achieve, and all I can do right now is go out and really make a fist of it here."

A cushioned fist of it, that is. The adductor problem that cost Wilkinson five months of last season has forced him to cut back on his obsessive, compulsive, and ultimately destructive daily kicking regime. He also needs to perform strengthening exercises to guard against his groin muscle re-tearing.

Matt Burke went through a similar process midway through his career as a Wallaby and it failed to stop him from kicking like a mule when it mattered. The Falcons full-back finished his international career with a kicking points tally of 730; Wilkinson's haul stands at 729.

Burke has also had surgery to both of his shoulders but at 33 still purrs along like a Rolls-Royce No 15 - and like a gleaming, custom-made role model to a team-mate who has resolved to adopt the Sydneysider's ability to "concentrate on the positives and not worry about making mistakes".

Wilkinson maintains his biggest challenge is not reclaiming the England No 10 shirt but altering his obsessive mindset. "I've got to enjoy myself when I'm playing," he said. "I do want to be massively successful, but at the same time I've got to enjoy my time here. With regard to the England thing, I'm happy enough with my slight turn-around in outlook to say, 'What will be will be'."

It would make quite a karaoke for the testimonial dinner: Jonny Come Lately doing Doris Day.