There’s been a whole pile of stuff written about JW this week, following his typically understated exit from international rugby. Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph wrote with notable insight and sensitivity to the various and often conflicting Wilkobsessions, offering a real sense of the uncalm crypto-buddhism thing haunting or guiding the extraordinary Englishman.
For Jonny was/is at once the least fly of fly-halves, the most lion-hearted mute, the most innocent and most experienced body. He is special and yet magnificently, unchangingly doubty; robotically brave and yet disappointingly free of ambition. We’ve seen a knight in shining foil – often cruelly exposed to the lances of Backrow Baddies or occasionally brittle self-confidence. And yup; Jonny’s been kinda DEEP.
And that’s hugely rare for a really top level sports-guy, right? (Or maybe not?) But peculiarly, Jonny has enjoyed or endured almost Beckhamesque levels of interest and exposure during his decade of world domination; being in relative isolation the single most obvious rugby player on the planet for a good deal of that time. And being handsome and beautifully mannered and loyal and utterly worthy and yes… impervious and deep.
England’s World Cup winning side were the only team for decades to really break the Tri-Nations stranglehold on the number one slot in the global game. For maybe 2 years they were the unlovely best – but they were the best. During and after this period a frequently less than fully fit Wilkinson deconstructed all-comers with a stunning if relatively narrow mixture of tactical and goal kicking. Combined with the likes of Hill, Johnson, Back, Dawson, Greenwood he threw a blanket over any ambition the opposition might have had… then punished them. England should have won the tremulous final against Australia by 15 points, such was their superiority but it was entirely right that Jonny coolly – with his weaker foot – slotted the deciding kick. Entirely right.
What we need to do perhaps is look at his gifts – what he offered – as well as calibrate his undoubted efficiency. Foremost amongst these was/is surely a kind of ultra-honesty; an elite selflessness. Jonny gave massively to the cause. He was central rather than sensational. Indeed, the somewhat brutal truth may be that he was simply not extravagantly gifted; therefore we do revert, rightly, to prosaic assessments of his legacy; to points.
I mistrust records – points on any board always being a function of external qualities – era/opposition/position/role etc etc – but in Wilkinson’s case it is his metronomic facility to punish and reap from infringements and opportunities presented that describe him most fully. For years he was the most feared accumulator in world rugby. You went off your feet – he punished you. You encroached at re-alignment – he punished you. It’s therefore perfectly appropriate rather than begrudgingly limiting to describe him as an Ice-Cool Points Machine.
As is now being acknowledged widely, he mattered, had to be factored in to every game plan – not because he was Barry John (and therefore he might feint and dance mercurially through you) – but because he would punish you if you offered him 3 points. This may mean that he is less great than some members of the Gene Kelly School of outside halves; but in the modern game, where it feels as though preparation (mind games) and Game Management (Mind Games on a White board?) play an arguably disproportionate role, Wilkinson has really mattered.
That iconic moment when he finally slotted the World Cup winning drop was, for me, mostly memorable as a uniquely liberating moment of personal triumph for ‘Jonny’ – Jonny personally. When have we seen him so purely ecstatic? When else has the responsibility of Wilkohood slipped so deliciously away? And how long after did he leave it before trudging out again to practice?
Perhaps he’s entrapped me here, through that punishing introspection of his, into indulgence, navel-gazing; but I find myself wondering how lovely it might have been for us to see him enjoy things more, ‘express’ himself more. However this probably misjudges him. He more than anyone has personified a kind of streamlined, ineffable but heroic purpose. He wants to get the team through. In game mode, he would rarely – very rarely – contemplate beyond the necessary, the management of the game, the kicking of the kick.
So pointless – hah! – to judge him as though he is capable of going beyond his remit, which was what, again? Oh yeh… to be perfect. To be ludicrously brave in the tackle (braver than any 10, ever); to be the best kicker in the world to the extent that Games Were Won Almost Always By Him Alone. And, incidentally, to be uniquely, hair-shirtedly whiter than white.
Don’t ask him to be Carter or even Contemponi. He is not. Jonny Wilkinson is, iconically, a great sportsman and appropriately in an age of highly-crafted Business Bull, a Team Player Extraordinaire. Respect!