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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 December, 2003, 01:38 GMT
Behind the Wilkinson myth
By Jonathon Moore
Rugby union editor

Jonny Wilkinson is England's ordinary superhero
After 44 days and 48 matches, the 2003 Rugby World Cup was decided by the slimmest of margins.

England came out on top in the most nerve-wracking game in World Cup history, but when the ball sailed through the posts for the final time there was no need to ask whose boot had propelled it.

Jonny Wilkinson finished the match with 15 points and ended the tournament as top points scorer with 113.

Appointed an OBE in the New Year Honours, he is the most famous rugby player in the world and has been described as a genius.

I first met the man attached to English rugby union's most coveted left foot in 2001, ahead of what was to become the failed Lions tour down under.

Perched on a seat outside a magnificent Hampshire hotel, Wilkinson looked an unlikely hero.

A boyish smile softened his otherwise muscular frame and he sat quietly answering my questions with a precision his club and country now expect of him every time he takes the field.

Unlike many of his team-mates who talked and walked with the swagger of international sports stars, the then 22-year-old Newcastle Falcons fly-half preferred to speak of the "honour and expectation" that came with the jersey.

Since being selected, he had had some trouble sleeping, he told me: "I'm not sure what to make of all this, really. The next couple of months are going to be the biggest of my life."

He was right. Wilkinson started all three Tests against Australia and, although it was his intercepted pass that many still consider the turning point of the series, his contribution of 35 points cannot be underestimated.

Two years on little has changed. He remains the heartbeat of his country's rugby hopes and Australians still love to hate him.

His intensity and constant search for perfection are translated, down under, into aloofness and some newspapers have even ludicrously questioned his sanity.

The truth is that Wilkinson approaches rugby union like no-one before him. He is the professional par excellence.

A little over a year ago - and through no fault of my own - I arrived minutes late for a meeting with him at Newcastle's Kingston Park.

WILKINSON FACTFILE
Jonny Wilkinson is England's ordinary superhero
Born: 25/5/79
Position: Fly-half
Team: Newcastle
Debut: 4/2/98 v Ireland
Past World Cups: 1999
Did you know? First appeared at Twickenham aged 10

"He's left for an extra kicking session," fitness coach Steve Black informed me with a jovial Geordie smile.

It was 7.30 in the evening. Black had already put his squad through a lengthy afternoon session and was on his way home, along with the remainder of the squad.

I was left to discuss the merits and problems associated with being England's greatest rugby asset, over a pint of Newcastle's best with Jonny's father Phil.

"It is a problem now and again," Wilkinson senior admitted. "Christmas Day does tend to interfere with his training regime and there are occasions when he can struggle to relax.

"But that's nothing new. It was the same 10 years ago when I was watching him play and it's the same now. "

I left the big question - of whether he actually enjoys his rugby - to the man himself.

His answer was telling and remains one of the reasons why the Aussies, among others, just don't get him.

"It's not a question of enjoyment," he told me. "I judge myself quite harshly and, unless I've performed to my own standards, I don't feel satisfied."

Christmas Day does tend to interfere with his training regime
Phil Wilkinson

Whatever the Australian media throws at him, Wilkinson remains his biggest critic.

In training, he is not satisfied simply to watch the ball sail through the posts. The level of perfection for which he strives allows him only to be happy if he strikes the ball's miniscule "sweet spot".

The drawbacks of such a thirst for improvement are obvious, particularly when your character does not fit easily with sporting superstardom.

"It's vital that when I can relax I do," he once told me. "And to do that I need support. Family is very important to me and thankfully I have that to fall back on when I need it."

Whatever the headlines down under, the truth behind Jonny Wilkinson is far from complicated.

He is what you would refer to as a "good bloke", a mate you could rely on, and for that reason alone he is revered within the England camp.

If he is not dissecting his own performance on video, he never watches rugby.

He enjoys going to the cinema, his favourite band is Coldplay, he is learning the guitar and, if he could have any superpower, it would be X-ray vision.

He is just like me and you, except that he is England's - and arguably the world's - greatest rugby player.

And he kicked the winning points in the 2003 World Cup final.





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