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

Click to follow
The Independent Online

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.