THE year was 2003 and Jonny Wilkinson had just become the most famous rugby player on the planet by drop-kicking England to World Cup glory with his “wrong” peg.
A couple of weeks after the event I phoned Newcastle Falcons and asked the helpful receptionist if Jonny could see his way to sending a couple of signed photos for my two boys. What else could the World Cup winner have on his plate?
The photos appeared in the post and Wilkinson had not just signed them, he had personalised them, referring to the boys by name and offering his best wishes for their own future success in the game. I have been a fan ever since and nothing Wilkinson says in our telephone interview last week made me change my mind.
He phones at 8.15pm (French time) long after the appointed hour but I should have known that nothing interrupts his kicking practice. After finally quitting the session, Jonny has jumped into his car and he can give me the 20 minutes it will take him to drive to his house in the hills overlooking Toulon.
He seems happier, more relaxed in France and by way of explanation he offers: “I don’t have much contact with the media and I play rugby for playing rugby.” Wilkinson prefaces almost every statement with the phrase, “to be honest”, as if the world doubts his integrity and at one point in the conversation he actually stops mid-sentence: “I was going to lie to you then, but I won’t”, and presumably he didn’t.
Toulon are the European champions and the English icon captained them to victory in that nervy final against Clermont Auvergne last May. It would have been an appropriate time to retire but instead Wilkinson signed for one more year. This season is expected to be his last and he will want to start Toulon’s defence of the Heineken Cup with a bang against Glasgow at the Stade Mayol this afternoon. So what does he know of today’s opponents?
“To be honest I’ve been hugely impressed by the quality of the rugby in the Celtic League but also coming out of Scotland at the moment, especially Glasgow,” he charms. “They are showing that not only can they play rugby from everywhere and do all those things that make a team such a threat, they will beat any team and not just because they have the talent on their day to beat any side but because they merit their victories. They are just strong.
“I get the impression now that with Glasgow they can beat any team on their day but they can pretty much beat most teams even when they are not fully on their day and that for me is where the threat is. It means that, home or away, we’ve got to get it right now because if we are going to compete against these guys we have to deserve to win and that’s only half the battle because deserving to win is sometimes not enough. We know we’ve got our work cut out and I think it’s great for Scotland that Glasgow are doing so well.”
The flattery should be taken with a pinch of salt. Or, better still, a pinch of flesh to remind us that it comes from the modern day “Hammer of the Scots”, a man who once scored 27 points in the 2007 Calcutta Cup, his first Test appearance since Sydney four years earlier, with the full house of five penalties, two conversions, a try and a drop goal. Even that afternoon merits no more than a postscript in his long list of rugby achievements from World Cup to Heineken Cup taking in Grand Slams, championships and record breaking points hauls along the way. But when asked which of his many achievements gives him the most satisfaction the answer is none of the above.
“Initially I began the journey thinking and writing down so many goals: I want to do this and I want to win that and I want to captain England and I want to be the best player in this and the best fly-half and for a while that inspired me to really search for everything and, much as I love the team side of things, I know that deep down that was what was really driving me. Then I had a big life changing experience in terms of the injuries thing and having to deal with the outside [world].
“With all that stress and pressure I realised that my journey was heading down the wrong way and I think it was less fulfilling than it could have been and it was less effective in terms of helping my rugby team to play well and after that the satisfaction has come from wanting to get the best out of the team and loving the relationships that I have made with other guys. Sharing memories with other guys in the field when you are forced to go to difficult places and even some of the conflict on the field and you know that standing up to it together is the main thing.
“I love that, trying to help the team, and enjoy that, but the other thing is trying to get better every day, that’s been the change for me. The satisfying change has not so much been about beating other people it’s been about where I can go next and that has led to amazing relationships and amazing experiences, like coming back from injury and fighting back from difficult times and winning things but it’s no longer about what you want, it’s about the journey to get there. Just going along that path has been the most satisfying thing.
“Yeah, there are games that have worked out, winning the European Cup late in the career was something that you search for but you don’t bargain for. Obviously there is the World Cup and things like that, they’re fabulous, but doing what is written in the sports book is never the whole story. It’s never been that satisfying.
“Looking back on the World Cup in 2003, it doesn’t satisfy me, it happened when I was 24 years old. What does satisfy me and what will satisfy me when I move on from rugby is knowing day in and day out that I went for it and I loved doing what I was doing and I gave everything to those guys around me and for myself.”
As he says, Wilkinson’s life-changing moment came not at the World Cup but in the fallow years following it when he played almost no rugby as his battered body rebelled.
Those were dark days but they gave him time to reassess his life and priorities and he emerged much the happier man. It may be justification after the event but now he insists that he is grateful.
“I am glad that I got injured, to a degree... because it has enriched my career afterwards in terms of experience, in terms of the coaching, in terms of progressing as a player and a person too.”
“An unexamined life is not worth living”, or so Socrates claimed, in which case the Greek philosopher would surely approve of the Toulon ten who takes an electron microscope to the minutiae of his own existence. Visit his website (jonnywilkinson.com) because there are not many athletes who provide fans with a “Mindmap” and if you imagine the Englishman just a tad humourless then click through to the videos, some of which are laugh-out-loud funny.
Wilkinson has spoken at length about the influence of Buddhism on his life and the “journey” he constantly references is the result. Success is fleeting and travelling is more important than arriving. I don’t doubt the sincerity of his beliefs but how else could someone cope with the knowledge that they had scaled the heights of their chosen profession at the age of 24? Like King Louis in The Jungle Book, he’d reached the top and had to stop. Little wonder that the stand-off felt the need to recalibrate his goals.
In the months ahead he will probably face another challenge, the tricky business of retirement. If the player has been upbeat throughout our conversation, the mood music changes noticeably when the topic is aired, but at least he has a plan and a support network in place.
“I guess that is always going to be the big one,” he says, suddenly downbeat. “There is no easy way out of it, it’s the same for everyone. You go from having an amazing job and one that for me is in a sense enjoyment/mission in life just to try and squeeze every single thing out of this experience, every minute of every game in a short career. But when that career comes to an end I think that’s the bit that is going to hurt.”
He cites the support from his family and two others who are probably as close to him as anyone – the Falcons’ former conditioning coach Steve Black and one-time England kicking guru Dave Alred. His experience of being mentored by these two individuals – “Blackie” still helps on a regular basis – has nudged Wilkinson towards his next career.
“I really, really, really enjoy the one-on-one skills coaching and stuff like that,” he says with real, real, real enthusiasm. “I have spent so long in my life wondering, questioning, discovering, learning, going through mental ups and downs and trying to get better at things, that I have thought in quite a lot of depth about these things and I have the desire to carry on thinking about it and carry on improving whether I’ll be on the field or not.
“I’d really like to be able to offer a support network to other players because I know that getting the best out of myself comes from being confident, having a lot of evidence which supports great belief which reinforces confidence which reinforces better results which reinforces more confidence. That is the sort of world and environment that players need to live in.
“I’d love to be able to provide that for other guys. For me, it is a far more rewarding feeling to know that you have helped someone else go on their way than to go on your way yourself.”
Presumably that generosity of spirit does not extend to helping Glasgow get off to a flyer this afternoon, although I suggest that Toulon have ticked the Heineken Cup box so this season they might focus their considerable energies on winning their first Top 14 title since 1992?
“No,” is Wilkinson’s blunt response. “From what I gather there was maybe an understanding in French rugby beforehand that they may have been leaning towards domestic competition and that Europe was one of those things that, well you give it a go and if it’s going well then you run with it but if it’s not then you don’t worry about it, it’s all about the Top 14. Well, that’s just something that doesn’t exist, certainly not at Toulon.
“It’s an every game mentality, it’s the next game, the next weekend that’s the most important. For me that is the way it has to be. I’ve not experienced anything different. At Toulon every day the next game has been the most important. The players know it, the club knows it and the fans expect it.
“Last year we won the European Cup and now we are starting this new campaign but I know that I want it to go so well. And if it doesn’t the disappointment will be unbearable.”
If he is retiring soon he isn’t planning on going out quietly. The interview draws to a close and I realise we have been chatting for fully 30 minutes. I have an uneasy feeling that Jonny Wilkinson has spent the last ten of them sitting in his car outside his house, too polite to call a halt to proceedings.