Off-colour England have no one better to look up to than a fit Jonny Wilkinson. Nov 2003: With 26 seconds of extra-time remaining of the Rugby World Cup final in Sydney and England and Australia locked at 17-17, Jonny Wilkinson receives a pass from his teammate Matt Dawson and steers a dropped-goal between the posts to secure a victory which has passed into sporting folklore. When Jonny comes marching home he discovers he has become a national icon.
Nov 2008: As Wilkinson's injury woes continue unabated - from knee to neck to bicep to groin to kidney and back to knee - England are in the doldrums, thrashed by Australia and humiliated by South Africa in the past two weeks. Now the mighty All-Blacks are due at what was once called 'Fortress Twickenham'. Where is Jonny when the country needs him? Recovering from a dislocated knee that will keep him out of action until the new year.
Given the fact that his body has an unhappy habit of breaking down at the most inopportune moments, it is ironic that Wilkinson is as obsessive about his health, fitness and diet as he is about his peculiar art of penalties and dropped-goals. Here is a man who is wont to breakfast on an eight-egg 'omelette' made without the yolks - "That's the thing about food. The bit that makes it fantastic is the bit that's bad for you."
When he made his international return in Feb 2007 having been missing from the England XV since his World Cup final heroics 1,169 days earlier, Wilkinson scored a Calcutta Cup record of 27 points against Scotland. As shy and modest as he is talented, however, he played down his 'talisman' role. "People still seem to take an interest in me which is very nice of them but leaves me thinking 'why are they so interested?' I like to think everything in life is earned and whereas I'd earned a certain amount in my career up to the 2003 World Cup, a part of me believes I simply don't deserve this kind of attention.
"The nicest thing about a team game like rugby is earning the respect of your teammates and that's what I miss most when on the sidelines; it's why I play the game, to win things certainly but also to win respect." But surely, you might ask, having kicked his way into legend, Wilkinson should take that respect for granted? "No way. I feel I need to win it more so than ever." Although England's director of rugby, Rob Andrew, is understandably impatient to see Wilkinson come to the aid of his beleaguered side, he also believes that being out of the public gaze has been good for the player as a person if not an athlete.
"It's difficult to fully realise just how big Jonny is - not only in England, but in France, New Zealand, everywhere they play rugby. When the whole 'Bigger than Beckham' thing was going on, he didn't know how to cope with it at all at times. He doesn't particularly like being the centre of attention." But has the man himself enjoyed being Jonny Anonymous all these months? "No I haven't. After my original neck injury a lot of people told me they reckoned it was the best thing that could have happened as it gave me time to come down to earth after the World Cup. I probably agreed with them because I did need time just to be by myself.
"When I suffered my second injury, people said that was good, too, which I pretty much disagreed with. And when they were still insisting 'that's great you've had another injury' after No 3, I was struggling to find any reason how my injured knee could possibly profit me. By that time I was ready to inflict some serious physical damage on them." email@example.com