independent

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Wilkinson's warrior spirit drives on troops

Out-half's bravery undimmed by time or torment as he carries Toulon's hopes in those famous cupped hands

Jonny Wilkinson

"TODAY YOU must do more than is required of you. Never think that you have done enough or that your job is finished."

In 2003, Jonny Wilkinson conquered the world with the words of General George S Patton reverberating through his consciousness.

Ten years on, he still carries those words in his head, indeed will probably emit some of them to his Toulon troops beneath the bowels of Lansdowne Road stadium this evening, before emerging for another battle, this time for the right to be declared champions of Europe.

It is a familiar, comforting rite of passage for someone whose monkish devotion to his profession, martyr-like submission to physical toil and spurning of celebrity culture has, improbably, maintained an endurance even he himself could rarely have wished for.

For it was only a year after that famous World Cup triumph, that drop goal, when Wilkinson first feared that his obsessive compulsion to throwing himself into cauldrons of danger might cost him his career.

"THERE'S ALWAYS something that can be done – something that can help to ensure victory. You can't let others be responsible for getting you started. You must be a self starter."

In the spring of 2003, a few months before Wilkinson's familiar carriage, the awkward stance of someone seemingly suffering from constipation, those cupped hands, as if cradling a candle with the faintest of wicks, became a global phenomenon, he pitched up at today's venue.

It would prove to this viewer, at the very least, that here was a player who defined a new breed of modern professional, perhaps a redefinition of the role of out-half, even if so perilous to his physical well-being.

In Dublin a Grand Slam decider showcased Wilkinson's physical side. England put Ireland to the sword with some clinical rugby, but only after physically pummelling the Irish, with one highlight being Wilkinson coursing Geordan Murphy, as he hared towards the try-line, before realigning to hit the full-back.

If anything sums up Wilkinson more than the drop goals, it is this bravery that has driven him all his life; he wouldn't play for England for some 1,169 days after that World Cup win as his bionic body succumbed to every possible affliction.

His bravery remains undimmed by time or torment, encapsulated, again, by the defining moment of this season's Heineken Cup semi-final, when a trademark drop goal was successfully essayed, as Owen Farrell was crashing him to the ground in the tackle.

He returns to Dublin still at the top of his game, commanding a millionaire team of earthy types who typify Toulon's gritty port location and fanatical support. They don't care how they win as long as they win. Wilkinson's career has been devoted to the same credo.

"SELF MOTIVATION is the key to being one step ahead of everyone else and standing head and shoulders above the crowd. Once you get going, don't stop."

His application to his task is the stuff of legend. He will be on the pitch before the groundsmen today, slotting over those perfect six kicks that he demands as the precise measure of a routine build-up.

If Jonny's body has suffered all the pain, his mind has suffered for his art, too. I remember interviewing him for a Sunday newspaper an eon ago and at times it was difficult to ascertain quite what he was saying and, even then, why he was saying it. His autobiography summed up his existentialist torment thus: "When you're obsessive, like me, searching for something unattainable can become unhealthy ... it's like falling through the air and grabbing at the clouds."

This is the boy who would plunge into the bushes on the way into training as a seven-year-old in order to purge his anxieties with a spew of vomit.

Even after a World Cup success and more than 80 caps for his country, he still craved the solitude of his room. "He's a very private guy," says Denis Hickie, who toured with Wilkinson on the 2005 Lions tour. "He's very driven. He plays as long as he's enjoying it. He clearly enjoys the amount of effort and dedication that goes in to being Jonny Wilkinson. He lets his rugby do the talking, He's never been a guy to seek limelight. He just wants to play and the older he gets the easier it's been for him to step away from the limelight."

Moving to France was perfect for him.

"ALWAYS BE on the lookout for the chance to do something better. Never stop trying."

It is not surprising that he has thrived in Toulon. He is idolised for what he is, not what he is not. He has better players around him and, in Bernard Laporte, a coach who can exploit his strengths, unlike Martin Johnson, who only exposed his weaknesses.

Some may say his team are as colourless and as drab as his own character. Many demur, including Hickie. "I wouldn't say he's dour or characterless," he said. "Why does he need to be all-singing and all-dancing to everyone? He's a rugby player and that's all he wants to be."

Part of history. And still making it.

"FILL YOURSELF with the warrior spirit – and send that warrior into action."

Wilkinson wouldn't have it any other way.

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