Wilkinson convincing as man to 'bind side together'

Click to follow
The Independent Online

England's new captain yesterday unveiled his blueprint to put the world champions back on road to success.

Goal-kicker, tackler, distributor, organiser, role-model, conscience, keeper of the flame - Jonny Wilkinson is a man of many parts, all of them fundamental to the immediate well-being of the England team as the post-Woodward era emerges from the dark night of a thousand retirements. As the quiet man from Newcastle discussed his latest role as full-time captain yesterday, he also revealed himself as a master of rhetoric. If the red-rose army do half the things Wilkinson intends to demand of them, they will be world champions in perpetuity.

"How do I see England under my captaincy? As a side thoroughly prepared and hugely committed, excited and enthusiastic about the challenges before them and determined not to waste a single opportunity," he pronounced. "I want people to be professional and accountable. I want to be part of a side with never-ending desire and ambition, a side willing to make it happen." Yes, Jonny, but apart from that...

While Wilkinson has never been renowned as a talker, it seems he has always been a statesman-in waiting - unless, of course, he ordered a lightly- poached thesaurus for breakfast before yesterday's training session at the England headquarters in Bagshot. His verbal performance was impressive indeed. During the course of a 30-minute question-and-answer session, he persuaded a rather sceptical audience that he would rise to the extreme challenge of captaining an international team in the throes of a mini-crisis, despite his recent injury trauma.

"I'm not saving myself," he insisted when it was suggested that his love of the rough-and-tumble might have diminished as a result of the surgery performed on his ravaged neck last spring. "I couldn't bear to play this game if injury forced me to do things differently. I'm desperate to get involved in the physical stuff, but there aren't too many people running straight at me just yet. I'm waiting for it, of course; I spent my eight or nine months out of the game thinking about exactly that. Yes, I'm trying to play a more mature game; no, I'm not holding back. Since I returned to rugby in August, there have been no setbacks and no sign of any symptoms.

That, in itself, was massively reassuring, not least for Andy Robinson, the acting head coach of the national team and the man responsible for appointing Wilkinson as successor to Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio - leaders described by the 25-year-old outside-half as "great examples to us all".

Robinson admitted he had cogitated on the subject for some weeks before realising that "one name kept leaping out at me". He summed up his decision by saying: "I looked through all the toughest competitors, and this guy is the toughest of the lot."

During the initial build-up to next month's internationals against Canada, South Africa and Australia, two of Wilkinson's colleagues from last year's World Cup-winning side - the Saracens flanker Richard Hill and the Bath centre Mike Tindall - will assume leadership roles in a joint vice-captaincy kind of way. However, Robinson intends to make a single appointment after talking it through with his stand-off.

And Wilkinson will be playing at stand-off, as opposed to inside centre or outside centre. Charlie Hodgson of Sale may be the form No 10, and Olly Barkley of Bath may be growing in stature after a frustrating start to the Premiership campaign, but Wilkinson will wear the shirt of dreams when Canada come knocking at Twickenham on 13 November. Unless something very rum occurs over the ensuing weeks, he will wear it throughout the 2005 Six Nations' Championship and beyond. "I select the side and I see Jonny as the number one pick for the style of rugby I want to see us play," the coach added.

"Had that not been the case, I wouldn't have asked him to captain the team. I think he's playing well at club level - I was particularly impressed by him in the opening couple of Premiership games - and his leadership of Newcastle has been outstanding. I've been with England throughout the troubled time since the World Cup victory, and I believe we have missed the enthusiasm he brings to the squad.

"I see him binding this side together, which is the reason for my early announcement." Wilkinson had quite enough on his plate without the burden of captaincy, but this extra helping of high-pressure strife appears to be to his liking. Asked whether the demands of leadership, tactical stewardship and marksmanship might be just a little on the heavy side, he replied succinctly: "That is not the way I perceive it." He then added that while his colleagues would inevitably turn to him for guidance, he would turn to them just as readily should he feel in need of help and reassurance.

"This is how the England squad operates," he said. "There is no single voice, and no one need ever feel he is out there on his own. I can demand anything of these players and expect to get it. In the same way, they can demand anything of me and have the same expectation. It's the way it works here, and I treasure it.

"Anyway, I've always considered myself a captain. It's what comes from spending so much time playing at outside-half, which is primarily a decision-making position.

"When Andy offered me the job, I immediately started thinking through the impact a 'yes' would have on my life. But there was never any real doubt in my mind as to my eventual decision. I love this England environment. It is a place I want to be for as long as possible."

As he was talking, Hill was in London undergoing a scan on the knee injury he suffered during Saracens' defeat at London Irish on Sunday. His new national captain wished him luck - the first act of many in a leadership career he hopes will cement his position in the front rank of England players.