JONNY WILKINSON THIS WEEK ANNOUNCED HIS RETIREMENT FROM RUGBY. JUST TWO FINALS AWAIT HIM BEFORE IMMORTALITY BECKONS. WHAT – YOU WONDER – WILL THE GREAT PERFECTIONIST DO WITH HIS NEW-FOUND FREEDOM?
Retirement gets mixed reviews; a living death, according to some or, as Winnie the Pooh once put it, a time to listen to all those things you can’t actually hear and not worry about them. What Jonny Wilkinson makes of the rugby hereafter will be fascinating but right now, his only certainty is that the bell’s tolling and it’s time to go.
‘Definitely it’s been one hell of a rollercoaster ride,’ he concedes, ‘but it feels right and that’s a hell of a thing to be able to say. I know there’ll be no way of rediscovering rugby elsewhere, the togetherness, the bonding with a group of guys fighting for something in a sport where you put your body on the line. That’s the true essence of what rugby’s about and certainly when I look back, those will be the memories I’ll treasure most.’
Practically perfect in every way there’ve been times when Jonny Wilkinson has seemed almost too good to be true. Mind you there’ve been other – tortuous – times when he’s been more Hamlet than Mary Poppins. What’s truly defined him, though, has been his unstinting professionalism, a work ethic so ingrained you suspect that next Christmas Day – as has been his wont all his sporting life – he will still sneak out the back door with his kicking tee to bang a bag of balls over the garden hedge, just for old times’ sake.
‘Christmas Day off?’ His smile is almost rueful. ‘Yeah, well, I can have a lot of days off now, can’t I? In fact, yeah, that may become my biggest problem. The trouble is that smelling the roses has always been a contradiction because the joy of rugby – for me anyway – is in that hellish feeling on a Saturday morning; it’s in that horrible disappointment when things don’t go well and the waking up sore on Monday morning because the journey’s about wanting to be your best and you can’t be your best without all those things.’ For those who’ve always suspected the man’s a masochist, there’s the quote you’ve been looking for.
Martin Johnson, on his retirement, briefly considered holding up banks as a means of replacing the adrenalin rush of rugby, although he did eventually dump the idea, conceding – wisely – that there’s ‘no fun in armed robbery.’ This, though, has long been the ageing gunslinger’s conundrum and certainly when you turn the question on its head and ask Jonny what he’s most looking forward to about giving up the game, the interminable pause is not for effect.
‘It’s new ground I’ve never been on, isn’t it?’ he says, eventually, ‘and depending on how quickly I acclimatise that may be my best friend or my worst enemy. I need to find that separation – as I think I now have with England – that’ll allow me to accept that it’s time to sit back and not have to worry about what happens if it doesn’t go right.’
You wonder sometimes what it must be like to be the public property that is Jonny Wilkinson. Generally you’re considered iconic when your first name’s enough – Jonah, Tiger, Kylie – and Jonny seems to have been ‘Jonny’ since he was a six-year-old kicking toilet rolls over the sofa. At times the gem of all the nation must have felt as though he was living in his very own Truman Show, his retirement – who knows – some measure of refuge from all the hoop-la and hullabaloo.
‘I know that we’ll talk about him in ten years, twenty years’, says Toulon President, Mourad Boudjellal, ‘and I’ll tell people I knew Jonny Wilkinson and they’ll get the impression he never really existed, like these great actors, you know, James Dean; we have a hard time even imagining they ever lived and Jonny Wilkinson will be a bit like that.’
Five years ago the glumpots and the fusstails were insisting that emigrating to Toulon simply wouldn’t work but after years of injuries and emotional institutionalisation in the North-East of England, the move to the Cote d’Azur saved his sporting life. Certainly it’s hard to think of an Englishman France has loved more; if there were a referendum here to choose between the abolition of Camembert or the abolition of Jonny English, Toulon would be a cheese short.
‘The magic of Jonny Wilkinson isn’t really tangible,’ says Boudjellal, without the slightest hint of irony. ‘It’s sprinkled above the entire team. If you play with Jonny Wilkinson you cannot come second, you cannot be average and you cannot fail because you’re a team protected by God.’
Happy endings are best left to Hollywood but ‘Sir’ Jonny has a chance to do not only what he and his team did last year but – effectively – to do it twice in eight days. Next week’s Top 14 Final follows on from this week’s Heineken Final, the European Cup, of course, being the trophy Toulon won so doughtily in Dublin last year.
‘Moments like that are an enormous privilege,’ says Wilkinson. ‘I was at Newcastle for thirteen years and I watched Leicester win it, Toulouse; I watched the Irish boys picking up the trophy and it just became something that other guys did so when you do it yourself, you have to try to make the most of it. I’m not a big one for celebrating things, I don’t know why, I just don’t feel comfortable doing it, but then there are moments when you think well, you may never get this again – a bit like the World Cup in 2003 – so don’t hold back.’
Monday – the day he officially handed in his notice – was a stinker; rain like bullets under a sky the colour of a battleship’s bottom. But with training done – the forwards in the bath and the backs enjoying a pedicure – Jonny was heading back out into the deluge to kick another ten kilometres of balls. Truly there is no one in sport who deserves a tall drink and a plush sofa more than Jonny Wilkinson.
19 MAY 2014