Wilkinson packs his boots but stays wary of publicity

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson, superstar. It sounds a whole lot better than Jonny Wilkinson, basket-case - even Wilkinson himself would admit that much - but in the afterglow of the drama of the night before, the most relentless point-scorer in the history of rugby union and the deliverer of the World Cup into English hands looked decidedly uncomfortable at the thought of spending the next few weeks of his very private life in the blinding glare of the public spotlight.

"I think he'll handle it," predicted Clive Woodward, the England coach, as he mused over how his most celebrated player might react to a long period of captivity in the human zoo. "He has a brilliant agent and brilliant parents who are with him all the time. I confidently expect him to be on the phone, demanding to play against the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham next month. He'll be fine, definitely. All the players will be fine."

Woodward knows his stuff on this subject; leaving aside the Newcastle director of rugby, Rob Andrew, one of Wilkinson's predecessors in the England No 10 shirt and a fellow slayer of Wallaby World Cup ambitions, nobody deals more directly with the million-pound marksman who, whether he likes it or not, has set up camp in the consciousness of a nation.

Andrew also believes his 24-year-old protégé will deal with the seismic shock of success on the global scale. But what about the man himself? "Do I feel like a superstar? Not really," Wilkinson said. "I feel like a proud member of a proud team of rugby players. We've been together a long time, we've had our ups and downs here in Australia and we've all done a lot of soul-searching at one time or another. That means a lot to me, and frankly, I don't look outside of the circle I inhabit."

So far, so predictable; the outside-half has never been noted for his outbursts of headline-grabbing controversy. Hence the basket-case charge, which was made during the pool stage of the tournament when both England and their prize match-winner were performing badly and Wilkinson seemed like a man in search of an emotional crutch to hold him upright. But much to the surprise of his audience, there was one little bombshell in the armoury.

"I've packed my boots already, so I won't be practising goal-kicking today," he said with a wry smile. This from the man who does not feel he can eat Christmas dinner without working up an appetite in front of a set of goalposts. "I don't know when I'll next do a session. When I arrive back in England, I suppose I'll get on with it fairly quickly. But the first few sessions will definitely be relaxed."

Shock, horror! Wilkinson relaxes! Don't hold the back page, hold the front one. As he warmed to his theme, he lifted the veil on his innermost thoughts after leaving the field at the Telstra Stadium on Saturday. "In the dressing room, I sought out the people I've become so close to - Will Greenwood and Matt Dawson, the guys who sit next to me before matches; Paul Grayson and Mike Catt, fellow outside-halves who have given me so much help down the years. I wanted photos taken of us together. That is the kind of thing that matters to me.

"And then, when I went into the physiotherapist's room to be patched up, I was happy to be on my own - to enjoy a sense of calm, of detachment. We'd all worked so hard for this prize, but I wanted to savour a moment or two alone. I thought of all the people whose energy I'd taken and used in pursuit of this dream - my parents, my friends, my colleagues. Feelings like those are special, because they don't last for ever."

Not that Wilkinson will miss everything about this tournament. Breakfast, for example. He really struggled at breakfast time. "It was a problem, spending a sleepless night in bed and then trying to avoid the newspapers in the breakfast room," he explained. "I'd sit at a table 20 yards away from everyone else, in an effort not to see any of the headlines. And then someone would come and sit close to me and open a paper, so I'd have to move again." Here was the Wilkinson of old - shy, withdrawn, a solitary obsessive at the heart of a team game that used to be a magnet for good-time boys with money to spend and lots of ideas on how to spend it.

Yesterday, Wilkinson was awarded the latest in a long line of gongs - the International Rugby Board's player of the year award. It was a no-contest situation, in light of what had occurred some 18 hours previously. Wilkinson finished the World Cup as its leading scorer: 113 points in six games at a rate of almost 19 per fixture. Sixty-nine of those points came from penalties, 10 from conversions and a remarkable 24 from drop-goals, which have now become his signature mark.

Precisely none came from tries, a fact that seriously annoys those Australians who consider English rugby a bore. Wilkinson spent an unusual amount of the day smiling in public, and it is a fair bet he found Wallaby anguish far more amusing than the prospect of celebrity status back home.

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