Black art which restored the national treasure

Man who rebuilt Jonny: Golden boy has had a big helping hand on road to recovery

Tim Glover
Friday 10 August 2012 02:04

Before parting company with the Rugby Football Union, Clive Woodward said that the pluses of his job as England head coach far outweighed the minuses. "After all,'' he said, "not many families have Jonny Wilkinson coming home for tea.'' If there has been one man closer to Wilkinson during his remarkable career, offering tea and much else besides, it is Steve Black.

Through the good times, which hugely outweigh the bad, Wilkinson's soulmate has been the Newcastle factotum. At Kingston Park, Black has developed a special relationship with Wilkinson. "I've worked with him since he was 17 and we're very good pals," he says. "Our friendship has enhanced the professionalism between us. I know what works for him and what doesn't, but then he's a one-off. Whatever it is, he likes to do things right. He's totally dedicated, has a great work ethic and is an example to everybody.''

When the Lions lost the decisive Third Test in Australia three years ago, Black was the first person to put his arm around an almost inconsolable Wilkinson. "Never mind,'' he said. "I still love you.'' On that tour, Black's role was described as "conditioning coach''.

"He's much more than that,'' Wilkinson says. "He's a psychologist and a shoulder to lean on. The final motivational words in the dressing room before a game often come from him. Bearing in mind his personality, that can be very effective. He is relentlessly positive and has the respect of all the players. He's such an honest bloke you know he will give it to you straight.''

To improve Wilkinson's agility, Black had him dodging a heavy, swinging punchbag, as good a way as any of learning to avoid a back-row forward. "Through stress, players can get 15 per cent worse or better,'' Black says. "Jonny gets better. His mental strength makes him a natural leader and he should be the next captain of England. Missing eight months has been a frustrating time for him, but if he ever got really down he never showed it. Having an enforced break has done him the world of good, and he will continue to improve as an all-round player.

"He's ready for the England captaincy, and if he gets it he'll step up again. The timing is perfect. He's the best- conditioned player in the world, and people who doubted whether he'd return from injury obviously don't know him. There was never a worry.''

In any case, Black didn't lose any sleep over it. Seven years ago, after turning 40, he was diagnosed with apnoea, a condition which means that, apart from the odd catnap, he is awake 24 hours a day. "I can only stay asleep for as long as I hold my breath. I use an oxygen mask, but it doesn't stop me waking up 600 times a night. I stay up, writing, reading or watching television. Sometimes I can snatch 45 minutes' sleep in a car or a bus. The hardest part is going to bed night after night knowing I'm not going to sleep, but my body has learned to cope, even if my ego hasn't.

"When I ran in the sprints at Powderhall I was 11 stone. Now I'm 18 stone. It's a side-effect of the medicine. I'm dead lucky. What I do for a living is my passionate hobby, and I tell Jonny that this sleeping game is overrated.''

Black is not surprised that Woodward turned his back on Twickenham to try something different. "Clive deserves credit for letting the squad evolve, but England won the World Cup by one score in extra time. On a good day they'd have been 30 points better. He looked at the team and saw that its shelf life had gone, and he was not necessarily up to building a new squad.''

Talking of shelf life, Black's autobiography, called simply Blackie, published next month, will not receive the publicity of Woodward's Winning!, although to a degree they share common ground. "Professional sport is not about performance, it's all about winning,'' Black said. "There's no medicine like a big W.

"I can't understand why people think it's strange that Clive should look at soccer. I can't see what the problem is. A chief executive could make a successful move from Ford to Heinz without knowing much about cars or food. Even so, though, I don't think that Clive's approach was up to date. He surrounds himself with lots of people, which is too bureaucratic. He will find that soccer is still in the dark ages.''

A Geordie and the son of a boxer, Black's dream - that was when he was able to dream - was to play for Newcastle United. "I joined the youth team as a winger. I was right fast. I could do 10.9 for the hundred. I thought I was destined to play in the black-and-white shirt but I didn't make it. It broke my heart.''

He tried his arm at professional boxing, winning three bouts out of six before making a name for himself in football with Newcastle, where he worked with Kevin Keegan, Sunderland and Fulham.

Regarded as an innovative thinker - last week he had the the Falcons charging around Kingston Park in manual go-karts - his job is not so much fitness coach, more a Jeeves in a tracksuit. "I first went to America 25 years ago and I still go three times a year to see what they're up to in American football and basketball, but I bring back less and less. The internet has made the world a much smaller place, and the danger is that everybody's doing the same thing. England looked to the southern hemisphere, which had been hugely influenced by the US, which meant that we were copying a copier.

"You shouldn't coach a sport, you should coach the person, but people are training to be better at fitness tests instead of better players. Athletics coaches coming into football and rugby don't understand what they're trying to achieve. To my mind, 99.999 per cent of teams are not functioning properly. Coaching at an élite level is about trust, and the next big step is more personalised training, one on one instead of across the board.''

With a degree in sports science, Black's field was health and fitness instruction. "I'm now the only person that doesn't do any fitness testing. When the season started we were the only Premiership club, in rugby and soccer, who had their entire squad available. If you're too close to peak fitness you'll break down. I want my players 80 per cent fit. Adrenalin will do the rest.''

Black is bemused by Lawrence Dallaglio's retirement from Test rugby. "All this talk of burn-out is absolute nonsense. A game only lasts for 80 minutes and they play once a week. If they trained properly there's no reason why they shouldn't carry on.''

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