David Flatman: Now gather round, kids. I once played rugby with Jonny Wilkinson

From the Front Row: The highest standards and almost paralysing self-criticism hide the truth about the man behind the legend

As rugby union grows steadily into the bespoke suit that is professionalism, so it becomes gradually more established in the eyes of the public and, perhaps more significantly, those of potential sponsors. Like any start-up business, its solidity as an investment improves with every year that it survives.

And with this, inevitably, comes a boatload more perks. When I was a kid playing for Saracens we were all given the keys to a new car at the start of the season as if it were the norm. "You're a pro now, lad," said our team manager, "better get used to all this."

However, he failed to warn me of the enormous tax bill that would land on my doormat five years later but hey, it was all a bit new back then. His casual instruction seemed designed purely to quell my childish excitement at such a gift and, looking back, I'm glad I ignored him.

I have since realised that it is no way to seek pity by falsely denying enthusiasm about any of these things; it is, in fact, cooler to forget posture altogether. I still find it cool when I'm picked up from my house in a flashy car to travel to a rugby match on punditry duty and I still get a kick out of a huge box of goodies arriving from one generous sponsor or another. These are tiny little snippets of a life that few are privileged enough ever to experience, so why not enjoy the perks, I say.

This is why I feel entirely comfortable about admitting that, probably 30 years from now, I will be telling my grandchildren that I played rugby with Jonny Wilkinson. The man who will, without question, be remembered as one of the all-time greats, sat next to me in the changing rooms and shared the headphones to my Walkman on the team bus (though I don't think he liked my Dire Straits compilation).

But I don't think I will be regaling them with tales of Jonny stood out in the rain, kicking for hours after training, nor will I roll out the now famous reports of his almost paralysing disappointmentafter a less than excellent performance. No, everybody knows all that already; I'll be talking about the man.

Yes, he worked like a dog every day. Yes, his standards were higher than anybody else's and yes, he never, ever stopped trying to get better. But after that, after the kicking and the handling and the recovery were done, he was – and is – just a brilliant bloke.

Never one of the noisiest men on tour, his value was often to be found in shorter, more intimate conversations. He was hugely intelligent and reassuringly dry, and a conversation with Jonny rarely passed without me walking away in hysterics.

I cannot claim to know Jonny as well as the Will Greenwoods of this world because, although Jonny and I had first played together for England Schools in 1997 and – initially at least – we climbed the ranks together (you might say that he proved the more accomplished climber), my England career started and then stopped.

I would dip in and out of the squad over the years and he was always there; always quiet, always massively – almost intimidatingly – focused, but he never really changed; he was like this as an 18-year-old.

But behind this wall of preparation and willpower remains a warm, sensitive bloke with a sharp wit, a wonderfully cultured but humble perspective and an astonishing depth of character. I guess that all of these traits combined to make him the greatest at what he did for a long time.

You may catch glimpses of the man behind the legend every now and then but Jonny will always reserve much of who he is for himself and those who are lucky enough to be counted among his friends.

To be one of these – even a relatively distant one – makes me just as proud as punch, and I don't mind admitting it.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat