Wilkinson risks all in quest to rule the world

The prince of stand-offs' obsession with producing the perfect performance for England is in danger of becoming self-destructive burden
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The Independent Online

Here is a vision to delight the nation, to conjure for England a picture of the best of itself - nerve, authority and fine skill - in the dramatic sight lines of the Suncorp Stadium on a warm southern night.

It is of Jonny Wilkinson, the young prince, boldly declaring himself a king, shredding the stirrings of Welsh resistance and guiding his team to the penultimate challenge of this fifth Rugby World Cup.

It is a beautiful, long cultivated idea - and not least by his mentor Rob Andrew, who once wore the same fly-half shirt and briefly touched the glory he now assigns so confidently and completely to Wilkinson when he landed the heart-stopping dropped goal that beat Australia in Cape Town in the last seconds of another quarter-final eight years ago.

Before the first kick of this tournament Andrew announced: "Jonny Wilkinson is ready to win the World Cup for England - on one condition. That he stays in one piece."

Strong fuel for the English imagination, no doubt, but maybe a ball and chain for his protégé. Was Andrew, a battle-hardened pro among the dreamers, promoting not a vision but a fantasy - one that heaped still more cruel pressure on someone presented with an imperative never before loaded upon a single Englishman? It is one that for several years now has demanded relentlessly that he prove himself rugby's most influential player.

These, certainly, are the nagging fears before tomorrow's action. It has to be so because while the sun-tanned Wilkinson, who will be winning an astonishing 50th Test cap at the age of 24, is plainly in one piece physically after resting from the final pool game against Uruguay, it is just as clear that he needs to be. Carrying the weight of the world, as he has recently appeared to be doing, is not the lightest work.

Mirthlessly, methodically, he talks about his intense preparation, mentally and physically, for the greatest challenge of his career. And as he does so there has to be the terrible worry that he is carrying not just a sporting dream but an obsession with success that has come dangerously close to its workable limit.

It does not still the doubts that this week in his own newspaper column, Wilkinson conceded his status as an "obsessive". The problem, you have to suspect, is the yearnings of England have become too entwined with Wilkinson's rage to play a perfect game; that it is one thing to construct a dream but quite a leap to make one man its embodiment. The greatest fear now is that extraordinary commitment has begun to verge on self-torture.

If Wilkinson does indeed pull together against Wales the best of his game, which has persuaded some that he is the outstanding No 10 in the world (while others say he is merely the best kicker and that New Zealand's Carlos Spencer and France's Frédéric Michalak have more instinct and flair with the ball in their hands) it will have to be said that he produced a great act of will.

This, on the eve of battle, is a young man who, in critical theory at least has the world at his feet, discussing his daily trial of trying to balance fanatical dedication to his sport and his team with a touch of lightness in his life: "You realise that whereas if you want to do everything you possibly can, and you want to think about it every single minute of the day because it makes you feel strong and ready, you also realise by doing so it does also push you closer to doing something counter-productive, to what actually becomes a strain on yourself." Possible translation: all work and no play could drive Jonny, competitively speaking, nuts.

So where is the deliverance from this treadmill of the mind? "I think I've learned through time to know when enough is enough - and just go and switch the mind off."

But has he? While England's captain, Martin Johnson, one of the most tunnelled operators in the history of the game, talked briskly about the need for his team, and himself, to look hard into the mirror after the lapses against Samoa two weeks ago, Wilkinson appears to have trawled his own soul.

"I think a lot about pressure situations," he was saying this week. "I know what winning means and I know what losing means, and the expectation when I take a kick comes from within."

He doesn't do a week of training. He runs a self-imposed gauntlet. "When I wake up on Monday and start my training and carry it through the week, " he said, "I have to react to how I start kicking at the beginning of the week. If I start kicking very well but am not happy with one thing, I have to alter it and that's how you go about fine tuning towards the weekend, and it's really just settling your mind on that, a lot of thinking the night before, and then before the game - making sure your focus is very narrow."

Against Samoa the charge was that Wilkinson's focus was too narrow, that he failed to register quickly enough on the big picture, allowing his central role to be invaded by members of what should have been his chorus line.

Nor, he admits, did it help that the unthinkable happened and he missed a couple of the kicks he nightly polishes off in his sleep. But, then, it is here that lies a nugget of hope that Wilkinson will indeed make Andrew's vision live tomorrow. When he looks back, he doesn't see in the last big game he played any call for self-flagellation. Indeed, there was a flash of animation, a slight cranking up of a one-pitched monologue, when he recalled the Samoa crisis... and his crucial role in ending it when his perfect crossfield punt sent Iain Balshaw streaming in for the game-settling try.

"I looked at the [Samoa] game and my initial reaction was to be very pleased that we won," said Wilkinson. "I still maintain now, which is the same as my initial reflection after the game, that having gone 10 points down to a Samoan team with the players they have and the way they were playing, there was a huge challenge set us.

"Whether some of the pressure had been put on ourselves by the way we defended at the start of the game doesn't really come into it. The fact was we were 10 points down and we had to attack that deficit with 70 minutes to go. We did it and my analytical summary would be that when we looked at ourselves after the game we just had to say we needed to improve a little bit in all areas and not in any one big thing.

"Now we know we have to make those improvements - or face getting on the plane and flying home. We had that in Paris after losing the quarter-final to South Africa four years ago, and for it to happen again would be even more painful than the first time."

It would also be a forlorn milestone for someone programmed to beat the world, a reminder that sometimes too much can be asked of even the most gifted young sportsman. Unusually, though, in this case, no one - not even Andrew - has asked more of Wilkinson than himself. That is his pain and, if it should happen that he gets it right tomorrow night, his abiding glory.

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