Jonny Wilkinson: England have always felt massively threatened by Ireland
Wilkinson relieved to have escaped game intact as he looks back on a decade's worth of clashes with Ireland - and lifts lid on '03 red carpet incident
It says something of what the game has become when its gods depart with their heads full of ghosts. Jonny Wilkinson feels blessed, he says.
Because, when he thinks back to the eternal circle of breakage and repair that his career became, he can't help but find himself pushing the odd black thought away. The days he danced with the threat of physical calamity fell in small multiples. So sitting on a beach in Thailand this week, far away from the flapping debate about collisions that could knock small buildings, he found no difficulty being thankful.
When Brian O'Driscoll's career ended with an early substitution in last year's Pro12 final, Ireland's greatest player described his over-riding emotion as one of relief to be escaping rugby relatively intact.
Wilkinson understood. Some time ago, a marketing pony-tail came up with a cartoon identifying his most chronic injuries, tagging it with a corny, poster punchline. Arrows pointed to his head (stitched up like a pin-cushion), to his busted neck, shoulder, arm, knee, to a lacerated kidney and to a torn abductor muscle.
Then an arrow, arcing from the other side, pointed to his rib-cage. "Never lost heart," read the caption.
Nor did he. But the benefit of time now gives him a compelling perspective on the helter-skelter game he once felt spiritually enslaved to. Wilkinson was utterly fearless at his best, a tiger moth relentlessly going to war with great Hercules bombers.
O'Driscoll recalls being "cut in two" by a Wilkinson tackle near the end of England's Grand Slam victory at Lansdowne Road in '03 and needing to be helped ashore after. Some months later, the England No 10 kicked perhaps the most famous drop-goal in history.
But Wilkinson's international career then came to a shuddering stop. He flew home from Australia needing a neck operation and did not play for his country again until the Six Nations of '07. In the interim, he wore his own body down to an empty shell.
Wilkinson recalls the "dangerous" obsession with training that wrecked his back and came to wage a terrible tyranny on both legs. In his head, rugby was "life or death" then. The thing that defined him.
"I do wonder sometimes what I would be seeing now if I was 18-years-old and coming into the sport," he reflected this week. "Definitely I would be asking how many 17 or 18-year careers are waiting for young players now.
"Probably after 2003, I started thinking that I couldn't see how anybody could go through their careers without picking up something serious because of the nature of the game. But that was ten years ago and things have moved on again. Players are getting bigger, stronger, fitter. But the key ingredient of it is that they're as quick, if not getting quicker.
"The size of the players is a recipe for incredible spectacles and enormous excitement, but it is also putting pressure on people's bodies. And rugby's only going to continue to go further in that direction. You can't suddenly limit people to how much they do in a week.
"So it is worrying in a way. I'm just glad it's not me having to try to work out the next step."
He recalls a tour to South Africa prior to the '07 World Cup and a hit - "one of the ones that scared me the most" - he took to the face and neck. Holding a Springbok up just short of the try-line, Wilkinson was caught at full pelt by a team-mate "trying to basically smash the guy".
His nose reduced to the equivalence of putty dropped on concrete from a height, he was removed to the dressing-room for repairs. As the medics fussed over his busted face, Wilkinson kept asking them for re-assurance about his back. The impact had, he says, been "phenomenal".
In such instances, health implications all but come down to the spin of a roulette wheel.
"You know," he says, "things like the recent George North and Mike Brown incidents are all just kind of bad luck. All of my injuries, bar my groin which came from kicking too many balls, just came from contact stuff that I couldn't control.
"Three times I did medial ligaments in my knee and the fourth time I dislocated my knee cap and tore everything. Yet I trained and rehabbed literally every minute that I possibly could. Add onto that ankles, shoulders, I punctured my left kidney which was from a tackle as well.
"All you can do is just look after yourself and try to make good decisions. At the end of the day, I'm probably realising more than anyone that, now I'm no longer playing rugby, I've hopefully got another 50 years on this earth.
"Which is a hell of a lot more time than I spent playing rugby. I want to enjoy those 50 years. And I wonder sometimes if, had I caught a hit in a slightly different direction, would I now be having to try and just muck through?
"I'm sat on a beach here talking to you and I'm thinking how I absolutely adored the career I had, but one of the things I'm most thankful for is that I'm able to move on with my life in a different way now and do so more or less at 100pc."
He played against Ireland on ten occasions, starting with a five-minute Twickenham cameo for his international debut in '98. England won five of those first six meetings; Ireland three of the last four.
From the outset, he says, England "felt massively threatened" by the men in green and,he imagines, they will do so again tomorrow.
That '03 meeting is broadly recalled as one that empowered England to go on and win that year's World Cup. It is also depicted as the one closest to this weekend's game in general context. For England come to Dublin needing to assert their credentials as autumn hosts by, at the very least, winning a Six Nations title under Stuart Lancaster.
In '03, they chased an elusive Grand Slam after three successive final fence stumbles, their demeanour franked by the pre-match belligerence of captain Martin Johnson's refusal to accede to requests for his team to move to the other end of the red carpet.
Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland too were chasing the big prize that day, but England won 42-6 and Johnson's stand thus became written into history as emblematic.
Wilkinson recalls the day differently, though.
"In hindsight, it's quite easy to say we knew we were going to win that day, that we had a different confidence about us," he reflects. "But that wasn't true at all, certainly not for me. I was equally nervous, equally worried that day about what we were about to experience. And Ireland started the game fantastically. Their tactical performance for the first 20 minutes had us all over the place.
"So the scoreline didn't reflect the game at all. Looking back, the best thing about that day was that we just held in there in an incredibly difficult environment, looking after the small details that eventually brought us a few breaks."
And that pre-match stand-off?
Wilkinson tells a story about his own identity crisis in that period. It relates to a game in Wales some years previously and a poor opening kick-off that offended his professional pride. At a team-meeting afterwards, he complained to Clive Woodward about the condition of the ball. It was, he suspected, overly inflated.
Woodward was incredulous. "Well why on earth did you not say that to the ref, tell him you wanted a different ball?" he asked. For Wilkinson, that would have taken something he did not yet possess.
"That very much wasn't in my character," he remembers. "I didn't feel myself capable of doing that, especially not at that age. So when it came to the Ireland game in '03, I don't know whether there was any of that in there.
"You look back and maybe it was just a way for us to say 'Look, we've been through enough now as a team, the buck stops here. We're not moving!' But some of us were down the other end of the line, just wondering what the hell was going on.
"So the impact of it was probably over-egged a little because of what happened afterwards. Everyone now reads it as this kind of enormous statement of strength and solidarity and resilience. . . But if we'd gone on to lose that game, I guess people would have maybe seen it as a reflection of arrogance or over-confidence or a team being overly-egotistical.
"Personally, all I remember is just standing there waiting under the orders of Neil Back and Martin Johnson, trying to enjoy the anthems."
Wilkinson's next game against Ireland would be the historic Croke Park collision of '07. Though England were a team forewarned that day, they were also lambs to the slaughter. "You just walk into an atmosphere that you've not experienced before and it comes as a big shock," he remembers.
"We were enormously respectful of the occasion, but aligning yourself with the history is one thing, dealing with it is another. But it wasn't just about emotion. Ireland played very, very well and blew us off the park. At half-time you were kind of helplessly walking back into the changing-room trying to figure out what you could do with a 23-3 deficit.
"You can say all the right things then, but it doesn't matter. Because we were losing every battle on the field. Personally, I would have liked to see any team go up against Ireland that day because I certainly wouldn't have backed anyone to beat them."
His career over-lapped with O'Driscoll's and Ronan O'Gara's and Paul O'Connell's and a generation of Irish players that came to be christened our "golden generation".
For Wilkinson, now a 'skills mentor' at Toulon, the friendships made with that group will always over-ride the cold arithmetic of wins and losses.
"I played against Brian with the U-18s and we pretty much met on the field every year after that," he says. "Ronan was the same, but being a ten we spent a lot of time together. He's someone I respect fully, same as Brian O'Driscoll.
"They're guys who have such a clear identity about who they are and what they stand for. And that's what makes great rugby players because they consistently do what they do to the highest level without compromising themselves in any way over such a long period.
"When you take the sport ingredient out, that's what makes great people. People you can trust and rely on and you enjoy spending time with. I see Ronan more because he's with Racing Metro now and I can't help but break into a big smile and have a good laugh whenever I see him. Because we have that immediate connection."
Wilkinson pays tribute to Johnny Sexton's "phenomenal" impact at Racing Metro, given how assimilation into the French way of doing things "can take forever". And Wilkinson sees huge similarities now between O'Connell's leadership of Ireland and that of his old England captain, Johnson.
Yet, he is reluctant to paint tomorrow's game in the same primary colours that so drenched that contest of '03.
"There are obvious parallels," he concedes. "I mean I see both these teams as realistic prospects to be in those final four spots at the World Cup. And anyone who makes that final four can win it.
"This has the feel of a crunch game now for the Six Nations, so mental toughness will come into it and that will tell its own tale.
"But I certainly wouldn't say the team that loses this game - barring a draw of course - should be written off for the World Cup.
"It would take a braver man than me to do that!"
England rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson is an ambassador for Guinness, official beer of the Six Nations, and features in the Guinness 'Made of More' campaign as one of the game's true icons. To view the 'Made of More' rugby campaign - which celebrates the heroes of the game - visit www.youtube.com/GUINNESSEurope. Fans who check in to their local pub on the Guinness Plus app to watch the game tomorrow will be in with the opportunity of winning a VIP trip to Ireland's game against Wales on Saturday week.