Brian Ashton: Jonny was ruthless in his desire to improve

Tackling The Issues

In typically understated fashion – no fanfare and no fuss, in stark contrast to most others who involve themselves in the union game – Jonny Wilkinson announced his retirement from international rugby this week.

It is reasonable to suggest that his performances were more closely monitored, and generated more public comment, than those of any individual who ever played the sport – certainly in this country. Yet he remains something of an enigma to many of those who watched his career unfold.

I worked with Jonny in the England environment and saw him close at hand over the best part of a decade, and while I do not claim to be any the wiser now when it comes to identifying exactly what made him tick, I am acutely aware of some of the characteristics that made him the most recognisable player of the sport's professional era. To begin with, he was relentless – I would go as far as to say ruthless – in pursuit of personal improvement: never once was he satisfied that he had reached his limit. His dedication to mastering the core skills and implementing them at the highest level was legendary.

Here are a selection of defining moments from my own memory – moments of magnificence in the white heat of battle that had their genesis in hours of hard work on some lonely training ground.

First, his tackle on French back Emile Ntamack in Paris during the 2000 Six Nations. Ntamack was one of the world's biggest, most powerful wings and Jonny brought him down hard with a hit that might, in today's politically correct game, have earned him a yellow card, or even a red one. What it did in the game of 11 years ago was announce clearly to all-comers that when they were playing England, they should not bother attacking down the No 10 channel.

My second memory comes from the same year – our Test match against South Africa in Bloemfontein, in which Jonny produced a kicking display that was nothing short of extraordinary. He was responsible for all 27 of the points that won us the game: to my astonished eyes, he was in that rare place where he simply couldn't miss. More than that, he punted like a metronome, repeatedly spiralling the ball 60 or 70 metres into touch, or into awkward areas downfield. His command of tackling and kicking was such that opponents found themselves forced into tactical rethinks. It was a massive advantage for England.

Thirdly, I will never forget the pass he threw to Jason Robinson, under extreme pressure direct from a scrum 15 metres from his own line, in the 2001 Calcutta Cup match with Scotland – a pass that freed Jason in space and resulted in a blinding length-of-the-field try for Will Greenwood. His ability to fire flat, accurate passes off both hands was a joy for colleagues operating in the wider channels, and allowed Jonny himself to play close to opposition defences when he chose to do so or when the team's strategy demanded it.

It is vital to stress how much the team and its strategy meant to him. Here was the outstanding individual technician in world rugby, ever willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. He was the first to acknowledge the decision-making assistance he received from highly proficient performers playing inside or outside him, particularly in his formative years, yet I witnessed a surge in his confidence and capacity to manage a game himself in the early part of the last decade.

Had he not suffered so many cruel setbacks with injury, I do not doubt that he would have been a much more dominant tactical figure at Test level than he became – or was allowed to become – in later years. Suppressing his individuality – and he was different – for the good of the group was a noble thing to do, but I don't believe it was the correct path for him to go down. It is interesting to note that over the last couple of seasons, he has seemed far more at home playing in Toulon than performing in the England environment.

I have been asked why he scored only six tries for his country. It was a silly question. If the idea behind the query was that he did not possess the necessary running skills to threaten the opposition line, we should remind ourselves of the 45-minute cameo in which he tore Ireland apart in 2002, or the wonderfully creative try he scored against the All Blacks later that year.

As we all know, he had a voracious appetite for the rough and tumble aspect of the sport, to the extent that it was devilishly difficult to stop him involving himself in the tackle area, whether or not he was the actual tackler. I can think of very few other backs, and no outside-halves, who had to be held back from hitting too many rucks. It was a reflection of his nature: of his enthusiasm for rugby.

This remarkable physicality took its toll: between 2003 and 2007, Jonny experienced more injury trauma than any professional sportsman should have to suffer. Yet he battled through regardless, and it seemed to have a positive effect on his outlook, rather than a negative one: indeed, it appeared to bolster his already exceptional determination. When he returned to the England side after a prolonged absence, against Scotland in 2007, my first game as head coach, he was brilliant.

Many have felt the need this week to compare him to other fly-halves who reached the top of the international tree between 1998 and 2011. I do not feel any such need. Jonny was a unique figure at Test level, an inspiration to those who coached and played alongside him; an inspiration to many thousands of youngsters, not only in England but from across the union landscape. How good a player was he? It is a measure of the regard in which he is held that there is no need to listen to those close to home. Ask any coach or any player from any far-flung corner of the rugby world and they will say they are more than happy to see an England without Jonny. That tells you all you need to know.

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