He would have started his obsessive preparations for the visit of France to Twickenham in six days’ time by now, analysing and planning in his inimitable fashion, but instead Jonny Wilkinson basks in the Core d’Azur sunshine knowing that while his international time is over all eyes have switched to the current man in the number ten jersey, Owen Farrell.
The new kid on the England block has made quite an impression on rugby and, it seems on Wilkinson, a young man with a steely nerve, a rock hard defence, a metronomic boot and a personality who reminds the rugby world of a certain other stand off when he bulldozed his way into test match rugby back in the late 1990’s.
For much of this century players and fans were secure in the knowledge that Wilkinson, a man who played 91 times for his country, won a world cup with a drop goal, played in another world cup final and scored 1,179 test points before quitting international rugby after the 2011 world cup, would be emerging from the dressing room.
Now, according to the blonde man with a permanent tan who greets you with a smile and a warm handshake, young Farrell has the same effect.
“I’m not in the England changing room but what I can gather the guys look across at Owen sitting there and are inspired,” says Wilkinson, who is better qualified than anyone to talk about English number tens.
“They feel a sense of security and a sense of confidence. I get the impression the guys say “thank God he’s there” and “I can’t wait to see what he does next.” Owen’s a leader and a great player who will only get better. I’m excited to see just how much better.
“I know people are making comparisons but forget about me, Owen’s writing his own story and doing it very well. If you tapped in “great hits” or “great passes” or “great kicks” on Youtube you’d see hundreds of stand offs doing them. You won’t see so many doing it over and over again, and you’ll see even less doing it consistently in changing situations both in terms of conditions – dry or wet, hot or cold – opposition, venue and stage in the game – will this kick win the match, give the team a lifeline, mean very little?
“What sets the best apart is that they don’t just do all the obvious stuff for all to see, such as the big hits, the clever passes and the crucial kicks. It’s the other stuff that only a player can fully appreciate.
“I’m talking about making a nine out of ten tackle, getting up on to your feet and making another tackle, say an eight out of ten, within seconds, getting up again, making a third tackle in the space of a couple of minutes, then receiving the ball and making the right decision to set off an attack, before, moments later, placing the ball down and preparing to kick what could be three crucial points. That requires a mental toughness that I can see in Owen, and strong leadership.”
Leadership is something Wilkinson possessed in abundance, something he shared with many of the 2003 world cup-winning team led by arguably the greatest England captain of all time, Martin Johnson. The latest incumbent, Chris Robshaw, is another man who has impressed.
“Chris embodies the obligatory values that a leader needs to have,” Wilkinson explains. “A captain’s bar has to be the highest of anyone’s, whether it’s putting his body on the line, effort, desire, inspiration, enthusiasm, goals or values. A rugby captain is a man to be depended upon for others to follow and to feel secure. These make up some of the key pillars to a great team. I got to know Chris a little with England when he was involved before the world cup, and in club rugby. Some people are made for the role. He is one of them.”
England’s greatest ever stand off watched last Sunday’s thunderous win in Dublin at home just along the sumptuous coast from his beloved Toulon, where he continues to shine for a team leading the French Top 14.
It is midway through a second RBS Six Nations tournament since Wilkinson hung up his test match boots and the England revolution under the steady hand of Stuart Lancaster continues to prosper. Wilkinson knows why.
“You have to get it right, week in, week out,” he offers, squinting in the February sun. “I’m not talking about your best. Every team can do that. I’m talking about your worst, when your worst is still a seven out of ten. Consistent excellence is about your bottom line.
“It’s easy to say we’re in Ireland, the weather’s terrible, we’ve had a man sent to the sin bin, a great performance and a narrow defeat’s not the end of the world. We could have said that back in the summer of 1993 against New Zealand in Wellington when we were down to six men in our forwards and standing on our own line. But we didn’t.
“Neither did England last week in Dublin. Defeat was unacceptable. When Ireland came at them, drew level and then had a one man advantage England did what great teams do: they survived, they thrived and they fed off the situation. It was the hallmark of a very good team.”
Wilkinson points to another example, this time against Scotland a fortnight ago at Twickenham. “We were on top but Scotland scored a try and took the lead,” he recalls. “What I liked was how England remained unbothered. It wasn’t a case of “what do we do now?” but “this is what we do now. If we do this we will win.” That’s not just down to a massive, collective display but more a commitment to every minor decision made on the pitch by every player.
“It was easy after the New Zealand win in November for England to say this was their template from now on. We’ve all done that after good wins. It’s the actual doing that counts. This doesn’t just mean having a quality group of individuals but the connection between them. It’s not physical, it’s emotional. You can’t see it or touch it, but you can feel it at times such as in Dublin last week when the game looked to be slipping away.
“That takes time. It’s like walking up a hill in icy conditions and then, suddenly, discovering the ground levelling out. It’s not effort. We put in as much effort when we lost 36-0 to South Africa in the world cup pool stages in 2007 as we did when we met them again in the world cup final. It’s the environment. It’s a place where people are comfortable and this England team are now in that place.”
Back in 2003 the competition for places was one of the many reasons why England became the best team in the world. Ten years on and Wilkinson can not only see similarities, but likes the way a potentially disruptive situation is being handled.
“The competition for places has improved in the past year to the extent where in many places two world-class players are vying for one position, and when someone gets injured someone else comes in and does such a great job that the original first-choice player has a real fight to get back in the side.
“That can only be a good thing for any sporting team, just as long as the excellence and consistency is maintained. To win a world cup you don’t need 15 players to be at their best, another eight to be in good shape and the other seven feeling like bit part players. You need all 30 to be at their very peak.
“Manu Tuilagi is a good example. To me he is a fabulous, fabulous player, one of the most dangerous in world rugby. Yet England went well in his injured absence. The fact that he was on the bench against Ireland doesn’t change the fact he’d walk into any side in the world, or that he remains one of the best players in the game. Sure, every player wants to start but as long as Manu knows how England feel about him – and others out of the starting XV at the moment like Dylan Hartley or Danny Care who can step straight back in and do the job – then the squad will be in a good place.”
Saturday will be another test for Farrell, Robshaw and Lancaster’s England because the French come to Twickenham on the back of two dreadful defeats away in Italy and at home to Wales. On form it should be a home banker but Wilkinson, who plays alongside and against the French players every week, is concerned.
“France are as dangerous as ever, perhaps even more so because of what’s happened,” he warns. “All we know is that England are in a good place to go on and win the tournament while France will not. It doesn’t remove the fact that France are more than capable of producing 95% and their 95% will beat any team in the world, anywhere. They haven’t done it yet in this Six Nations. It doesn’t mean to say they won’t do it at Twickenham.
“The French boys have had a lot of stick and they are hurting. There could well be a backlash. I’ve sat in enough Monday morning meetings with England before a French game really worried about the game. There’s no doubt in my mind that France, with the phenomenal players they have, can smash England, just as England can smash France. Everybody knows what they can do against England. Nobody knows what they will do. Some people may have fallen into the trap that England have played two, won two, France have lost two, so it’s an easy win for the home side next week. I can’t believe there’s a single England player in the squad who believes that.”
Wilkinson’s individual form for Toulon combined with the strength of his club means that his decision to either retire at the end of this season when he will be 34 years old, or continue, remains so difficult to make.
He announced at Christmas that he would know by now. Predictably, he does not. “It’s a life decision, not a career decision,” he explains. “I don’t do rugby as a job I live it. I can’t stop thinking about it. Ever! I can’t see myself stopping, even though I’ll have to at some point. My mind’s going mad thinking about it and I still have no idea what I’m going to decide.
“I love it here, I know I’m playing well and I find I can never think beyond the next game at the moment, such are the importance of the games we face now as we hone in on the business end of the French league and the Heineken Cup. People ask me about the British & Irish Lions and I say if I’m picked I’d be delighted, and if not then life goes on. What’s important is not what I want to do, but if the club and my teammates still respect me. If that continues to be the case then I will be happy.”
In his absence England appear to be in good hands. “So far, so good,” Wilkinson concludes. “Maintain consistent excellence and they will be in good shape for the world cup in 2015.”
The French, however, may beg to differ. Either way a familiar face will be watching from afar with a depth of knowledge unparalleled in rugby.
Jonny Wilkinson is wearing a Draper Hoodie by Fineside. Go to www.fineside.com