Wilkinson must prepare for life under public's gaze

Final countdown: South African who kicked his side to victory in 1995 fears England stand-off may not enjoy post-victory media attention

By Peter Bills
Saturday 22 November 2003 01:00

If England win the World Cup today, it will not make Jonny Wilkinson a millionaire. He is one already. If they topple the Wallabies and wrestle the William Webb Ellis trophy from Australia's grasp, Wilkinson will not suddenly find himself a sporting icon. He is one already.

Yet England's stand-off and pin-up boy of half the nation's schoolgirls, will still find his life will never be the same. Because, says the former South African No 10 Joel Stransky, he will suddenly become public property.

Stransky should know. He can tell you the precise moment and exact location where his life changed forever. It was at Ellis Park, Johannesburg, on Saturday afternoon, 24 June, 1995. Five minutes before the end of extra-time, South Africa and New Zealand were locked at 12-all in the World Cup final. The destiny of the Cup was on a knife-edge; the South African President, Nelson Mandela, was among the vast crowd scarcely daring to look.

Stransky received a straightforward pass from the forwards, but had already decided what to do. From 35 metres, he dropped a soaring goal that won the Cup for his country.

"You become public property, your life does change," Stransky says. "The media focus that comes with a country winning the World Cup is enormous, more so today than in 1995. You cannot go out on the street without people coming up to you, and wanting to talk about it or congratulate you. Every person reacts differently but for my part, I loved the attention it brought. It certainly changed my life. But in my case, commercial endorsements were few and far between because I left for the UK soon after that World Cup, and joined Leicester. But I knew that much of that interest from overseas clubs was due to that single dropped goal.

"If Wilkinson stars for England in this final, it will confirm his status, rather than elevate him to stardom. He is already the second most famous sportsperson after David Beckham, a special player. But perhaps nobody knows just how big a spotlight he will be under if England win, because it would be their first major sporting achievement since the soccer World Cup win in 1966. That is a long time to wait for glory and the effect could be immense."

Stransky thinks that Wilkinson might not find it all plain sailing, living in the glare of the media focus. "Sometimes it looks as though he is not comfortable with all the fuss and attention. But if England win, he will have to get used to it. He will have no choice." Yet the South African suspects an England World Cup triumph would have more value to northern hemisphere rugby as a whole, rather than just England. "In the last few years, England have closed the gap and undoubtedly become one of the great teams in the world. The fact that they were favourites coming into this World Cup speaks volumes for their improvement.

"But I think if they won, it would be the northern hemisphere in general that would benefit most. It would help grow the game everywhere because an England World Cup win would be a fantastic marketing tool in every country."

That seems possible. Beat England in the 2004 Six Nations' Championship, countries like Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France would reason, and you could call yourself the new world champions! It's that kind of wonderful logic that explains the delightful appeal of that tournament.

An England World Cup win could also capture the ongoing attention of the mass-market tabloid press, always reluctant observers of a game seen in their eyes as small beer compared to football. If that happened, Jonny Wilkinson's life would be transformed. But not, alas, always for the best.

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