The man who put his shirt on Jonny's future

John Fairley helped to shape a great career in humble Farnham. Nick Townsend reports
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The Independent Online

You survey the terrain where, as a small, precocious blond-haired bundle of energy, he first exhibited evidence of his England potential, and wonder how Jonny Wilkinson progressed out of mini- rugby, let alone managed to emerge a World Cup winner. It has been a 20-year journey from Wrecclesham Recreation Ground in Farnham, Surrey, to Sydney's Telstra Stadium, where his four penalties and that decisive drop goal with seconds remaining in yesterday's final secured the Webb Ellis Cup. Yet it all began amid playing conditions which John Fairley, coach of the Farnham Rugby Club sides in which Wilkinson played as a boy, describes as "fairly abysmal now, and when Jonny was there, even worse".

He continues: "Farnham has got, possibly, the worst pitch in the world, with mud and puddles. When you're kicking left-footed, it helps to have that right foot planted on firm ground. After a few days of rain, you'd normally end up on your arse down there."

Still, it had certain other advantages for the youngsters in his charge. "When they were coming off after a game, they'd all line up and do these huge 'Rory Underwood' sliding dives by the clubhouse. Jonny loved doing that. He was always just one of the boys - and still is." The location of the London Division Four club may not have been the most auspicious, but the environment in which the Wilkinson genius was nurtured from infancy to become Surefoot of Surrey certainly was.

Although now worth, according to some estimates, £5m in terms of potential spin-offs, and living in the North-east, within reach of Newcastle's Kingston Park, he is still regarded as one of their own at the club where he kickstarted his career. "Besides myself, there's probably about another dozen people who've been involved with Jonny's development," says Fairley. "In each of us there's a little tinge of pride that one of our boys has reached such heights. Last weekend, we were going round after the semi-final saying it was: 'Farnham 24, France 10'."

And yesterday? The sheer exhilaration at the clubhouse made words superfluous. Farnham RUFC are currently attempting to relocate. Should they succeed with their application, Lottery money will only partly meet the bill. No doubt yesterday's England hero will do his bit towards fundraising. "The first thing I'm going to do is hire an open-topped double-decker and parade him around the town," promises Fairley.

Fairley owns Ruckingoodshirt, a firm who market rugby shirts designed as fashion items for women. The England shirt bearing No 10 is particularly popular. He runs the business with Matt Payne, a rugby teacher at Wilkinson's first secondary school, Pierrepont, in Frensham. In the early days, Payne helped Wilkinson with his kicking at lunchtimes and after school.

Wilkinson was scarcely more than a tot when he first discovered that affinity with an oval ball. By the time Fairley encountered him he was eight. "I had just moved into the area and played for Farnham veterans," recalls Fairley. "One day I was watching my lad, Alistair, playing mini-rugby, and I saw a guy with wellies, a big jacket and a cigar walking up and down the line, looking a bit frustrated. We started chatting. It was Phil Wilkinson, watching Jonny. Phil wasn't too happy about what was happening in terms of the coaching. It ended up with the pair of us getting involved with coaching the mini-juniors."

Fairley took charge of Jonny's year and oversaw his development from under-eights to under-16s, while Wilkinson Snr coached the year above. Both men benefited from an RFU coaching course for parents. "Initially, Jonny didn't stand apart. A lad he played with, Andy Holloway, who is scrum-half up at Bedford now, was the first one I noticed. It wasn't until Jonny got to the under-12s, where the game is played more in the shape of senior rugby, that he stood out. I remember somebody asking me: 'Will he ever play for England?' I replied: 'Yes, he's got all the skills to do it'. He always had that innate ability."

Wilkinson himself admits he was "obscenely nervous" before games. Fairley remembers being bewildered by that characteristic. "One day, we travelled down on the bus to play Llanelli under-15s. He was a bag of nerves all the way down. He was ashen, barely said a word. I just thought: 'Jonny, you've got such an immense amount of talent. If I had that, I wouldn't be nervous about playing anyone'."

Once on the pitch, though, the captain - which invariably he was throughout those early years - was a liberated soul. "It helped that Jonny played with a group of guys who were very talented," reminisced Fairley. "They'd do some fairly prodigious things. We'd get a penalty and I'd be screaming: 'Just take the points'. But no. Andy Holloway would take a little quick kick, toss it to Jonny, who'd jink and sling that big miss-pass of his for the outside-centre to pick up. They had the self-belief to do it."

Wilkinson was born with an aptitude and desire for kicking, as his mother discovered when he began thumping toilet rolls round the family home. From the age of seven, he was kicking footballs for real. "A local BBC TV crew came to film our under-11s one day, and I suggested that Jonny could drop a goal for them," Fairley recalls. "He did it off his left foot. Then he did it off his right foot. The TV people just watched in astonishment."

Later, Payne worked with him on his kicking at Pierrepont before Wilkinson moved to Lord Wandsworth, a public school, where Steve Bates, then a teacher, recommended him to Rob Andrew. He came to Clive Woodward's attention, and that led to his boot skills being polished by the England guru Dave Alred.

In the final, it was not just his kicking that demoralised the Australians. It was his tackling, epitomised with his unceremonious block of Stirling Mortlock in the opening minutes, as the Wilkinson sword was put to the opposition throat. Among Fairley's collection of newspaper cuttings is one referring to young Wilkinson in action in an under-13s final, committing himself to a typical crunching challenge on a London Irish No 8. "The guy was twice as big as him, but even then he just used to fly in, and hit people very hard."

Yesterday, we witnessed all of the assets that have combined to create one of the world's finest players. "We've only been going as a club since 1975," Fairley says. "Nobody could have foreseen that we would produce one lad who was a World Cup winner. And on a playing surface that was absolutely appalling."

Acid drop for voodoo dolls

By Simon Turnbull at Kingston Park

It was 8.30am at Kingston Park and the first frost of winter had paid an overnight visit to the car park. There was a covering of ice in the vacant No 10 bay in the "players only" section. On a morning like yesterday's there are potential omens everywhere.

The question was: would Jonny boy freeze on the big occasion? There were 400 souls packed into the bar in the West Stand praying he wouldn't. With half an hour to kick-off, a teddy bear clad in a pint-sized England No 10 shirt was sitting in prime position on the table in front of the big screen. "He's the antidote to all those Jonny Wilkinson voodoo dolls," Julie Gooderson, secretary of the Newcastle Falcons supporters' club, said. "And he's been touched by the gifted one, too."

Not that everyone in the Falcons' home roost was hoping that the gifts honed by Wilkinson on the Kingston Park pitch would wrest the Webb Ellis Cup from the Wallabies. Having got his hands on the tin pot himself in Cardiff four years ago, Andrew Blades did not want to see it slip. The head coach of the Falcons was tighthead prop in the Australian team that battered France into submission, 35-12, at the Millennium Stadium on 6 November 1999. "I hope Jonny goes well but that Australia will win," he said, summoning as much diplomacy as he could before taking his seat for a private screening with his players in the clubhouse on the opposite side of the ground.

Blades must have been chuckling at all that bare-faced Aussie rubbish about Wilko and Co having bored their way to the final. Back in 1999 Australia made it to Cardiff courtesy of eight Matt Burke penalties and a Steve Larkham drop goal in a 27-21 semi-final success against the Springboks at Twickenham. Their victory in the final was based on "boa constrictor tactics - swallowing the opposition with a defence that allowed them nowhere to run". I quote Spiro Zavos of the Sydney Morning Herald - yes, a member of the one-eyed Aussie media pack.

"I hope Jonny kicks 30 points and that Jason Leonard lands a drop goal to win it in the last minute of extra-time," one member of the front row in the West Stand bar proclaimed, reflecting the popular mood as kick-off approached. It was to be a long and tortuous morning for the massed ranks of the Falconers.

They might have liked to know that the spot on which Jonny landed his kick-off was roughly where another English sporting Jonny - Jonathan Edwards, a resident of Gosforth, three miles down the road - had triple-jumped to Olympic gold in the very same stadium three years ago. Not that the early omens were particularly promising for England.

A funereal hush descended over the West Stand gathering when Lote Tuqiri grasped Stephen Larkham's kick to touch down. There was a collective cry of "Get in", though, when Jonny landed his first penalty, and then his second, to make it 6-5 to England. The voodoo dolls weren't working.

There were gasps of concern when Matt Giteau left England's golden boy spreadeagled on the halfway line. "Come on, Jonny, we need you next week," someone hollered. And, to cheers all round, Jonny duly picked himself up off the floor and dusted himself down. By half-time he had kicked penalty No 3 and set "Billy Whizz" Robinson away for his try in the left corner.

A fretful 40 minutes later it was 14-14 and extra-time. A protracted "Y-e-e-e-s" greeted Wilkinson penalty No 4 and then an equally drawn out "N-o-o-o" followed Elton Flatley's equalising kick in the 88th minute.

There was nothing, though, quite like the wait for Andre Watson's raised arm when Jonny swung his right boot for his last-minute drop at goal. It was the moment time stood still, and then turned itself all the way back to 1966.

Even the camera crews and reporters danced and hugged in the celebration scrum. It was the same after the final blast of Watson's whistle. The champagne corks popped and the amber nectar flowed. Not for Dave Thompson, though. The owner of the Falcons could be found quietly sipping a Diet Coke next to the bar. "I was at Twickenham for the 1991 final - this was revenge," he said, soberly savouring the golden moment.

And what about the golden boy of the Falcons? "Well, that's all we've got," Thompson said, a grin spreading from ear to ear. "Tell all those poor Australians that."