RWC Special: Wilkinson refuses to rest in quest to be perfect 10

England's hopes may depend on the fly-half who never stops improving.
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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson scored his 700th point for his country during England's easy-as-you-like World Cup warm-up victory over France at Twickenham, which left him sharing a very small platform with some very big names: Jenkins, Dominguez, Lynagh, Mehrtens, Burke and Hastings. As he is currently galloping along at 15-plus points a match, he could find himself fifth in the all-time scoring list by the end of the autumn's business in Australia, when he will still be six months short of his 25th birthday. The Boy Wonder is breaking records the way French props used to break noses.

Not that Newcastle's finest knew the first thing about this latest achievement. "Seven hundred points? Really? Well, that's very satisfying," responded the most naturally gifted marksman in world rugby, the Wolfgang Amadeus of goal-kicking. "Thanks for letting me know."

Typical. When it comes to the fine detail that actually matters to him, Wilkinson stores more information than any other player on the face of the earth. He can tell you how many practice kicks he converted on any given day - ask him now about his preparation for the Six Nations game with Italy last March and he will probably give you chapter and verse - and will carefully analyse what went wrong with the ones he missed, always assuming there were some. He will offer the most precise information on weight training, diet, visualisation techniques and the amount of air pressure in the tyres on the team bus. What he will not talk about is personal glory. Why? Because he has no use for, nor patience with, self-gratification.

"What you have to understand is that I am in a highly privileged position in this England side," he continued. "I may be the person who puts the points on the board, but all those points are the product of hard work by others. You wouldn't believe the amount of effort some people put in to win a simple penalty in front of the posts. The fact that I'm the bloke who propels the ball between the sticks doesn't tell anything like the whole story."

Wilkinson went on to add that while he had been disappointed to leave the field after a mere 43 minutes of the game - not unreasonably, Clive Woodward and the red rose hierarchy wanted him back in cotton wool the moment the match was won - there was a positive aspect to his premature departure. "It meant I could start thinking about the next training session, and the areas that need working on," he said, earnestly. The man is obsessed.

In many respects, obsession is the name of the game with England these days. Woodward is fanatical about preparation, utterly gripped by the challenge of securing the tiniest of edges over the opposition. Andy Robinson can discuss the technicalities of the line-out for weeks rather than days, Phil Larder's defensive alignments are masterpieces of positional precision. Wilkinson fits so easily into the new England* * orthodoxy that he might have been born into it.

It is Dave Alred, his specialist kicking coach, who occasionally lifts a corner of the curtain that surrounds the Wilkinson phenomenon and sheds a little light on what happens on the training pitch when everyone else has departed for a hot shower and a phone call home. "I've spent a lot of time studying the psychological side of top-level golf, and I know Tiger Woods could hole every putt over 18 holes and not be happy with his putting," Alred said before one of last season's internationals. "Tiger operates at such a level now that what interests him deep down is not whether the ball goes in the hole, but whether all his putts hit the middle of the back of the cup. Because if they don't, he fails to achieve what he set out to achieve.

"In goal-kicking terms, that's where Jonny is. General technique is no longer the issue. The issue is pressure, and how he deals with it. When we practise, we do so on the basis of zero tolerance: there are no warm-up shots, no rehearsals, every kick in every session counts. We're looking inside the statistics; mere percentages are gobbledegook at this point in his development. What Jonny needs to know is whether each kick is "top-pocket" (a perfect strike) and "middle of the middle" (a perfect bisection of the H of the posts). If he takes six kicks and each meets both requirements, we can celebrate. But not for long. He'll have to do it again the following week."

The most striking of the many deeply impressive facets of Wilkinson's competitive make-up is that he does not get bored with it all. For most people - even for top-drawer kickers like Gonzalo Quesada of Argentina or Louis Koen of South Africa - there is only so much in the mental locker, only so many balls that can reasonably be kicked before they yearn for escape. For Wilkinson, such limits are effectively off-limits. He craves perfection, in so far as it can be attained in the inexact science of professional sport, and therefore craves the pursuit of it. If Alred asked him to kick 30 goals at midnight in the middle of a ploughed field somewhere on Tyneside, his pupil would be there like a shot.

Win or lose - and Wilkinson has developed a distinctly gratifying habit of winning when clad in England white - he leaves the team hotel with a list of faults that demand urgent attention. It was ever thus. Back in 1998, when he was invalided out of the notoriously desperate "tour of hell" after finding himself on the wrong end of humiliating defeats by both the Wallabies and the All Blacks, the list included just about everything it is possible to imagine. Yet if anything, he was even more disenchanted with himself some 17 months later, at the conclusion of the last World Cup. In '98, the teenager had expected little of himself, and delivered precisely that. In '99, he expected a huge amount, and delivered a whole lot less than anticipated.

Indeed, Woodward dropped him from the starting line-up for the quarter-final against South Africa in Paris, deciding that the risk-free conservatism of Paul Grayson gave England their best shot of making the last four. And that was not the half of it. The coach now says he should have shifted Wilkinson away from the outside-half position earlier than he did. "He wasn't ready to perform the role in the really big games, such as the all-important pool match with New Zealand," Woodward explained. "I should have put him at inside centre, outside Grayson. It was a mistake on my part, and I regret it."

Characteristically, Wilkinson readily accepts Woodward's reasoning without so much as a murmur of protest. "In terms of effort, everything I could possibly have mustered went into my performances in that tournament," he said. "But I suffered a lot from nerves, especially going into that match with the All Blacks, and I realised at the time that I needed to be more competitive in certain situations. I found it difficult to step away from the intensity and step outside the hype, when I should have been seeing the big matches from a more mature perspective. So I worked on my decision-making, on my adaptability, on my whole approach to dealing with pressure. To sum it up, I wanted to be able to think more clearly in the important moments. This game is all about thinking your way through a situation and reaching the right conclusions."

Hence the eternity of inch-perfect preparation, the endless discussions with Woodward, Larder and Alred, supplemented by the priceless input of Rob Andrew at Newcastle. Wilkinson has never been anything other than a genius with the boot - a genius that reached full flower in the north island of New Zealand during the summer, when he flabbergasted a hard-bitten Wellington crowd with a sublime kicking display in a gale-force, rain-sodden swirl. But as an all-round footballer, an international stand-off, he needed something only Andrew knew how to give: a ruthless competitive edge, a splinter of ice in the veins.

Andrew has taught his protégé well, for Wilkinson is three times the player he was in the last World Cup, and twice the performer he was when he last undertook a prolonged trip to Wallaby country, with the 2001 Lions. He has even had the cheek to add a little of the old Stuart Barnes to all those Andrewisms. Some of his passing against the Wallabies in Melbourne last June was a pleasure to behold, while one pass in his last outing against the French, which helped create the second of Ben Cohen's tries, was straight out of the Barnes book of quick-handed brilliance.

Those who saw Richard Sharp in his 1960s pomp might conceivably choose to differ, but most of us would argue that Jonny boy is the first real-deal, world-beating No 10 ever produced by the most populous rugby nation on the planet. Certainly, every other serious rugby nation would kill for him. As the New Zealanders themselves are saying: "While this bloke Wilkinson is there, England are favourites."