A tale of two fly halves this holiday season.... A pair of international rugby players, we shall see, of considerable playing abilities on the field but very different values and principles, away from it.
One resides in the south of France, one in the West of England. But they offer a completely separate image of the modern day, professional rugby player.
Wilkinson has been, and remains, a shining example of the true professional. He has long been dedicated to his sport, assiduous and meticulous in his preparation and performances. Nothing and no-one has been allowed to come before his never ending search for perfection on the field, nor his immaculate behaviour off it.
Wilkinson is a credit to his sport and his employers, whoever they may be. England and the French club Toulon are fortunate still to be able to call upon his services although we must assume that his days in the international arena are now numbered.
What has made Wilkinson so special, disregarding for a moment his abilities on the playing field, has been his persona off it. He has brought a quiet courtesy, immaculate behavioural standards and an image from which his sport has reaped enormous benefits.
Sportsmen who have reached the top of their game can offer no more than that.
So now we come to James, the South African at Bath, a man who has declared it is probably time to head home to his own country.
To the Lions, the Sharks....who knows? The former Springbok who has spent these last few seasons with English Premiership club Bath has also let it be known, as if we were somehow not aware, that there is a World Cup approaching in 2011.
The two facts are strongly connected, in James’s mind. He knows full well his chances of participation in the latter may well depend upon enacting his sentiments in the former statement. In other words, if James can get back to South Africa in time for the start of the Super 15 in late February, he will greatly enhance his prospects of making the Springbok squad for the World Cup.
What could be a better idea, what could possibly be a neater, cleaner scenario? Alas, there is but one problem. James is contracted to Bath.
Now this might seem a minor issue, if you look at it only from the player’s point of view. He has given the English club loyal service and doubtless feels he has paid his dues. If he expresses publicly his views, so the thinking probably goes, the club might look kindly upon his request and release him from his contract.
It would be an ideal scenario.....if you believe a player should always hold all the cards, always be able to opt in and out of contracts as he sees fit, as suits him.
I find the situation absurd. Butch James was released by Bath for Tri-Nations duties last August at a time when they desperately needed him to be a crucial part of their pre-season preparations. He flew off, played for the Springboks – and injured his shoulder.
So badly, in fact, that he could not play a single game of the new northern hemisphere season, which began in late August, until a few days before Christmas.
Through those four months of inactivity, during which Bath inevitably struggled without him, James was paid his full wages. Even though he was out with an injury suffered when he wasn’t even playing for his club.
And the club’s reward for the commitment, faith, patience and understanding they have shown throughout this long, frustrating period? James hints publicly it would be more convenient for him if he could now slope off home and, in essence, be released from the remaining time on his contract.
How’s that for loyalty, for thanks? But it’s typical of the majority of professional sportsmen whatever their game. Their only interest is themselves and extracting the maximum benefit for their own bank account or situation.
Loyalty, repaying understanding and decency doesn’t seem to be part of their philosophy.
All of which is pretty depressing if somewhat predictable. We should be thankful, therefore, for the occasional exception to the rule. Someone like Jonny Wilkinson, for example............