x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Wilkinson still has great expectations

There is an elite band of players in international rugby who transcend the bitter rivalry and tribalism among countries.

Jonny Wilkinson obliges young fans with his signature at Twickenham.
Jonny Wilkinson obliges young fans with his signature at Twickenham.

There is an elite band of players in international rugby who transcend the bitter rivalry and tribalism among countries. Because of their achievements on the field, these players are elevated by the rugby fraternity and the fans who pay to watch the sport around the world. Willie-John McBride's exploits with the British and Irish Lions in the 1970s make him a standout. From the other side of the globe, Sir Colin Meads, the fearsome All Black captain who once played through the pain barrier with a fractured arm against Eastern Transvaal, also commands universal respect. But there are few players who combine brilliance on the pitch with the total humility that emanates from Jonny Wilkinson.

Wilkinson relates a story that illustrates his modesty. "I have never played against Stade Francais before," Wilkinson he said ahead of his debut for his new club, Toulon, against the Parisian giants tonight. "I watched them play my former club Newcastle once though, in a Heineken Cup quarter-final some years back.It was at the Parc des Princes, in Paris, and it was a sellout game. I was injured so I wasn't even on the bench. We got hammered 48-8, and I watched it from the crowd, right up in the top of the ground, in the corner of the stadium."

Wilkinson, who has scored a record 1,032 international Test points, won 70 caps and played in three World Cups, could surely have had something to say about the awful view he had for that game. Yet probably the greatest fly-half that England have ever produced was content to watch a European knockout fixture from one of the worst seats in the house. Wilkinson told that story to an assembled throng before an open training session at Twickenham. The session was part of the week-long training camp for Martin Johnson's elite player squad to which Wilkinson has sensationally returned. It was the first time Wilkinson had played in public on that hallowed turf since coming on as a replacement at inside-centre to combine with the young pretender, Danny Cipriani, against Ireland in the final round of the 2008 Six Nations.

The session also served as a celebration of Twickenham's centenary and was attended by a crowd of four and a half thousand. Wilkinson had to leave the camp early, however, in order to prepare for tonight's crucial fixture, the season curtain-raiser for the French domestic championship. Before he left the training session though, Wilkinson obliged hundreds of young fans eager to get his signature. Wilkinson credits his former teammate at Newcastle, Va'aiga Tuigamala, the Samoa and New Zealand international, for instilling this humility into him.

Tuigamala started 76 matches for the Falcons during Wilkinson's formative years. The burly winger was also famously an inspiration and guiding light for fellow Rugby League convert, Jason Robinson, when the two plied their trade at Wigan Warriors in the mid-nineties. "All you can really control in life is how hard you try," explained Wilkinson. "Tuigamala had this fearsome reputation on the pitch, yet was anything but that off it. He achieved everything he ever wanted. He did all the bits no-one wanted to do. He turned up early to training. He even made the tea."

Tuigamala's influence was considerable, but you still get the impression that although Wilkinson has calmed the fire that burned within him as a younger man, he continues to be tormented by the need to fulfil his considerable ability. "I just know the challenge for me will always be that the expectations placed on me are my own," he continued. "That for me has always been a battle." Wilkinson's move to Toulon on a one-year contract that is reportedly worth ?700,000 (Dh3.67m) is precisely the incentive he believes he needs. He looks tanned, well defined, and extremely healthy, having spent the summer kissed by the Mediterranean sun - Toulon receives the most sunshine hours per year of any city in France. Wilkinson and his girlfriend, Shelley Jenkins, have moved into the vacated lodgings of the departing All Black, Jerry Collins, which boasts a backdrop on to Mont Faron and the sea stretched out below. It's a welcome change from Newcastle, a city in the north-east of England not famed for an abundance of sunshine.

The close-knit team ethic of his new club is also refreshing for a player who prides himself on the 'one for all and all for one' mantra of rugby. The Toulon players eat breakfast and dinner together, which helps to help create that vital bond among professional teammates. Wilkinson is quick to play down his role as the linchpin behind Toulon's audacious bid to become champions of France for the first time since 1992.

"It's about helping each other achieve the goals of the team. There are no heroes in team sport. It's about people doing their jobs to the best of their ability. If everybody does that, and you are good enough, you'll win." There is no denying, however, that Wilkinson is the main draw among a stellar cast that has been assembled in the Mediterranean naval port by the team's wealthy president, Mourad Boudjellal. The comic book publisher has created rugby's version of Manchester City or Real Madrid, spending a princely sum to bring in 16 players during the off-season. Wilkinson's Newcastle teammate, Tom May, has also signed for the ambitious club, while the Argentinian internationals Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe are among the new recruits brought to the south of France by the club's new director of rugby, Philippe Saint-Andre.

Wilkinson relishes the opportunity to start afresh with a rebuilt team and the chance to approach a new season in a different way. "We've got 16 guys in the same boat," he enthused. "It's a new experience and there is no other way to think about the situation. There's nothing to measure ourselves against and we just have to get stuck in. "Sometimes I get wrapped up a little bit. A brand new season and a brand new start bring those pressures that are associated with that, but you've just got to knock those away. It is a short off-season in France, and I haven't had time to get used to things, which keeps things lively.

"As soon as the whistle goes I will do what I have always done which is to revert to type. I will do the best I can with what is going on around me, and make decisions based on what I think needs to be done and draw on my experience and try to help the guys kick off with a win." With such an infusion of talent, it is hardly surprising that Toulon took their first practice session together earlier this summer in front of 5,000 fans. Wilkinson is quite clear about how much that means to him.

"It is a boost to know that people are out there who want you to do well and who believe in you. "It's exciting for me that people still feel that way - that they want to support me." It's easy to forget just how long Wilkinson has been away from regular international rugby. He has barely played since propelling Sir Clive Woodward's England to World Cup glory with that historic drop goal in Sydney six years ago. Since helping England to lift the Webb Ellis trophy, a catalogue of injuries has forced him away from his natural environment. His neck problems required surgery after that momentous win against Australia. Further injury followed - haematoma in his upper right arm, medial ligament damage, appendicitis, shoulder reconstruction, to name just a few. This is his 13th comeback, the latest being from a fractured kneecap that he suffered when tackling Olly Morgan in a Guinness Premiership match against Gloucester last September.

Wilkinson was put through his paces on Wednesday by Johnson's coaching team. Considering the England manager had to send home 16 of the 64 players from his elite player squad and the England Saxon squad because of injury, the players were separated by distinctive bibs indicating who could and couldn't go into contact. Wilkinson was not allowed to take tackles. The coaching staff resorted to drills that forced him to go past players with the ball in hand with greater frequency than those allowing him to show off his repertoire of distribution skills.

There was one drill that stood out in particular, however. Wilkinson was given the assignment of kicking for touch under the pressure of charge-downs. It reminded the crowd of the problems that Cipriani, his fly-half rival, had encountered with his clearances during the autumn internationals in November. The image of Ruan Pienaar, the Springbok fly-half, skipping across the tryline having gathered up his own charge-down off a Cipriani kick left an indelible mark in the minds of English rugby fans. It wasn't the first time the young Wasp had made that mistake - he had committed the same error a fortnight before against the Pacific Islands, and against Italy the season before that - and it wasn't the last.

Cipriani's rise to prominence has been checked by Johnson, who relegated him to the Saxons in July. And Wilkinson had words of encouragement for you understudy. "You don't become any worse a person or player just because someone else is in favour. It's just a chance to learn," he advised. "Anyone that has come in and been brilliant, and then suddenly they are out for a while, that's not failure. It's happened to me before.

"It's not about success or failure, it's in the effort, it's in the trying, the enjoying." Wilkinson has always aimed high and it is his drive, passion and dedication for the game that stands him out among his peers, and even those who went before him. And, according to some observers, his best rugby may well lie ahead of him in the build up to the World Cup in New Zealand in two years. "I don't want to finish my career and say 'I did okay, I operated within myself, and well done me'," he concluded. "I want to come out of my career and draw a line under it and be able to say how good I was because I gave it everything."