Rugby's Beckham is about to hit jackpot with his golden boot

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The Independent Online

His haircuts cost £8.50 and his mum still washes his kit, but Jonny Wilkinson is about to become the best-paid player the world of rugby has ever seen.

He may already be appearing in television adverts with David Beckham, the England football captain, but be prepared for wall-to-wall Wilkinson coverage when the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Australia on 10 October. Wilkinson already has sponsorship deals worth a total of £500,000 with Adidas, Lucozade, Tetley's beer, Lloyds TSB and menswear retailer Hackett. But that figure is about to rise 10-fold.

Experts predict that a successful World Cup will see Wilkinson's sponsorship deals rise to an estimated £5m a year - putting him on a par with Beckham himself.

It will begin with yet another high-profile Adidas billboard and poster campaign - this time featuring splattered "player portraits" of Wilkinson and a handful of the biggest names in rugby - the result of tackling punch-bags while covered in ink.

While the competition is taking place, all eyes will be on England's vice-captain and fly-half, who at just 24 is already his country's record points scorer. Sporting agents, industry experts and public relations executives predict that if England do well in Australia - and they are expected to reach the final - Wilkinson will become the biggest rugby star on the planet.

Jon Smith, chief executive of First Artist Corporation Plc, one of the UK's leading sports marketing agencies, said Wilkinson had all the ingredients to become a major commercial success.

"If England win in Australia, they'll be the first World Cup-winning team this country's had since 1966," said Mr Smith, whose company looks after the interests of some 400 football players. "If Wilkinson does really well and the media pick up on it, he'll achieve icon status. If he kicks the World Cup-winning goal, it's 'hey-ho Planet Mars' - the possibilities will then be endless.

"He has the potential to be the highest-paid rugby player ever. He could easily earn seven figures - they'll be queuing up for him."

Wilkinson's own agents, SCG, would not discuss details of any future deals, but did concede that the Rugby World Cup was a major turning point for its client.

"Jonny is the most marketable rugby player in the country," said Dan Collins, a partner in SCG. "If England win the World Cup, the sponsorship opportunities will be huge."

Wilkinson currently earns around £250,000 a year from his club, Newcastle Falcons - less than three weeks' Real Madrid wages for Beckham. But it is sponsorship that will make both players their fortunes. Leading PR Max Clifford is among those who believe Wilkinson has the potential to compete in Beckham's league.

"Wilkinson's the one - he's the golden boy." said Mr Clifford. "He's good-looking, he's got a style and a look about him, and he scores points that win games. In the next three years, he could be turning over £5m a year. He has the potential to become the first-ever rugby superstar for the masses - the sky really is the limit."

Wilko vs Becks

Jonny Wilkinson, MBE

Age: 24
Vital statistics: 5ft 10in, 13st 10lb
Nickname: Golden Boots
Annual earnings: £250,000 from rugby, £500,000 from sponsors and advertising
Club: Newcastle Falcons
Shirt number: 10
Partner: Once linked to Baby Spice Emma Bunton, but claims the story was a wind-up by team mates. Currently dating young actress Diana Stewart: all kept very private
Education: Lord Wandsworth public school, Hampshire. A-levels in French, biology and chemistry. Gained place at Durham University but turned it down to pursue full-time rugby career
Home: Lives with his brother, Mark, in a small country retreat near Newcastle
Clothes: Marks & Spencer, Hackett. Usually decked out in blazer, slacks and brogues
Hair: Never changes: short back and sides from the same barber in Newcastle: change from £10
Cars: Has finally traded in his Peugeot 206 for a Mercedes

David Beckham, OBE

Age: 28
Vital statistics: 5ft 11in, 11st 8lb
Nickname: Goldenballs
Annual earnings: £5m from football, a further £5m from sponsors and advertising
Club: Real Madrid
Shirt number: 23
Partner: Married to former Posh Spice Victoria Beckham
Education: Chingford School, east London. Left at 16 with no qualifications
Home: £1.25m barn conversion near Manchester, £1.5m villa in the south of France, plus of course "Beckingham Palace" in Hertfordshire
Clothes: Designer labels, M&S and sarongs
Hair: Anything from plaits and alice bands to mohicans and crew cuts
Cars: Lots, including Range Rover, Ferrari and Maserati