Jonny Wilkinson on concussion: It rattled my head so much, my brain must have moved
As ever, Jonny Wilkinson was hurling himself into the tackle with abandon. “It was against Bayonne, away,” he recalls. “I went to smash their back row and caught his elbow right on the chin. I reeled away and hit the floor, came to a little and thought, ‘What’s going on?’ ”
He was in that dangerous, insensate daze, of the same kind that assailed George North when the Welsh wing fell flat on the Cardiff turf last Friday night. “The Toulon medical staff told me, ‘You’re not right, you have to come off,’ ” Wilkinson says.
“Then I noticed my wrist was really sore. I looked at the video and saw that when I fell, my elbow went right over the wrist. So, I sat down on the bench, and Felipe Contepomi went on in my place.
“Seven minutes later, he was back beside me, because he had been knocked out as well. He was face down on the floor, face in the mud, with his arms splayed out. When he came around, he kept asking me the same question, over and over again. I told him, ‘You have already asked me this, God knows how many times.’ I looked at Felipe and thought, ‘Are you concussed and I’m not?’ I knew exactly what the score was, what was happening in the game. I asked myself whether I should still have been out there.”
It is complex for Wilkinson. Everything always is. The intrinsic perils of rugby have instinctively been embraced to the exclusion of any notion of self-preservation. Last season, however, another grimly similar incident against Exeter in the Heineken Cup gave him pause.
“It rattled my head so much, my brain must have moved. I went to walk off and I felt as if I was going over my toes. I was stumbling around, seeing stars.”
The problem, one highlighting the imperative for clear concussion protocols, was that nobody could definitively instruct him on what to do next. “I needed someone to tell me, clearly, if I was playing or not,” Wilkinson argues. “Who is qualified to make that decision? You tend to know your own body the best. But sometimes, the person looking after you has his or her hands tied by the club, by the pressures of promotion or relegation. No wonder it is a tough area. No wonder no one can find the answer.”
Wilkinson has withstood more than his reasonable quotient of big hits. Opeti Fonua, the Tongan No 8 often dubbed a tank in human form, steamrollered him with such ferocity during Toulon’s game against Agen in 2013 that he lay splayed on the field like a rag doll. Despite being passed fit to carry on after a cursory concussion check, he left the field moments later clutching a giant ice pack.
It is in reliving episodes like this that Wilkinson, for all his notorious obsessiveness, questions whether it was all worth it. He has been married for 18 months. He might want children. He might wish to carry on the mentoring he is conducting here for the Sky Academy on the playing fields of Guildford County School, where his teenage pupils in a kicking class are being taught to bisect the posts with that familiar metronomic brilliance.
What bewilders Wilkinson, in retrospect, is why he would put all of this at such risk. “What I do know, having retired, is how long a life you have after the game,” he says.
“During your career you think, ‘Yeah, it’s fine.’ But I look back at some of the decisions I made and I wonder about them.
“This is serious now. This is my life. I’ve got another 50 years of it, I hope. I look back and I think that I could have been throwing all that away, just because I wanted to play another 20 minutes in one game, showing the guys that I was up for it and proving to myself that I could do it. I’ve watched guys take hits, and I’ve taken a few myself where I have been completely out of it.”
The complication, he claims, is in coming to any quick judgments about the severity of a head injury. “One concussion could look worse than another and not be. Dean Ryan was knocked out in a game at Gateshead against Bath, soon after I had arrived at Newcastle. He was ready to go back on and the doctors told him not to. I watched that back recently, thinking, ‘Thank God he didn’t. It was a bad one. I appreciate that I have a long life. I tend to think now, ‘This is fun. I want it to last longer than my rugby did’.”
We should not presume from this that Wilkinson is finding the experience of being put out to pasture a seamless one. To speak to him during the grip of his rugby addiction was to fear that he might be crawling up the wall the day that he finally hung up his spikes.
We should be simply be grateful, then, that last summer he was able to achieve the denouement at Toulon he craved, with a famous double of European and French domestic glory. For he does even allow himself to contemplate what could have happened otherwise.
“It was all about how it would end,” he admits. “If I had faced a kick to win one of those games and it hadn’t gone right, what would I be doing now? Would I be saying, ‘Please sign me up, I’ll take any contract, just get me back in that team so that I can put it right?’ It would have been hard. That’s all I know. I would have struggled, hugely. There has to be a point where you say, ‘This is it’.
When I played tennis with my brother, we used to knock up balls for hours. And it was always a case of ‘one more, one last set’. Whereas I knew, this time, that my last shot would really be the last. And it scared the hell out of me.”
Wilkinson is a character so racked by self-reproach that he still, extraordinarily, castigates himself for mistakes that he made 20 years ago. He has won a World Cup, a Six Nations Grand Slam, every trophy there is to win in France, but he continues to torture himself over tiny lapses in regular-season games that everybody else has long forgotten about.
“I threw an interception last year against Grenoble, which lost us the game in the final two minutes. Even now, an image from that moment will flash up in my head and stop me dead.”
I look askance at him, but he is being serious. “I have done it all my life. There have been certain things I have regretted in my career, which have stuck in my mind, and I still think about them. I can go through a day being really happy, and then think, ‘Oh, God.’ It could be a fluffed kick back when I was really young. There are bad games with England where I think, ‘I just can’t go there.’
“If I go into that hole, I just can’t get out. And the most serious hole would have been created by the last game. Fortunately, the final note I left on was standing at the top of the steps lifting a trophy. I can handle that.”