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Jonny Wilkinson haunted by magnificent obsession

Published: 7:00PM Tuesday December 13, 2011 Source: Reuters

  • World Cup hero: Jonny Wilkinson kicks the winning drop-goal in 2003 (Source: Photosport)
    World Cup hero: Jonny Wilkinson kicks the winning drop-goal in 2003 - Source: Photosport

A magnificent obsession, nurtured as a boy on the playing fields of southern England, made Jonny Wilkinson into the world's most effective first five-eighth in the early years of the new century.

From his school days playing mini-rugby, Wilkinson dedicated himself to becoming the best player he could possibly be with a monastic dedication to training and preparation.

His metronomically accurate goal-kicking repeatedly punished offending sides and a dramatic extra-time drop goal won the 2003 World Cup for England.

When he announced his retirement from international rugby toay at the age of 32, Wilkinson's place in the pantheon of English sporting heroes was assured with a tally of 1,246 international points, second only to New Zealand's Dan Carter.

Wilkinson's dedication to his chosen sport, unassuming manner and blond good looks elevated him to a national celebrity status equivalent to that of footballer David Beckham and cricket's Andrew Flintoff.

But unlike Beckham and Flintoff, Wilkinson was clearly uncomfortable in the public spotlight. More disturbingly, what should have been his finest hour appears not to have given him an iota of satisfaction.

"I'm now a World Cup winner- people are supporting me, cheering me, giving me their respect. But what happens when we leave here?

"What happens when I wake up tomorrow?," he asked in his autobiography "Jonny" published last month.

"The problem of reaching the peak of your tallest mountain is that there is only one way to go and that is down the other side.

"Here I am celebrating the achievement of my life's goals and yet I can't stop thinking it can only be downhill from here."

The following day was no better. Wilkinson went to breakfast where a team mate was reading the morning papers.

"I go straight back, I look the other way," Wilkinson said. "I don't read a single paper in Australia."

Injury Jinx

In the euphoria of England's 20-17 win over Australia in Sydney, it was soon forgotten that Wilkinson's form had been as uncertain as his team's before the semi-final against France.

His counterpart Frederic Michalak was in sparkling form and France came to Sydney brimming with confidence.

Then the rains came. Michalak made a perfunctory appearance on a soaked pitch to practise before the match, Wilkinson went through his customary painstaking rituals.

He went on to kick all England's 24 points in a comfortable win over a dispirited French side in which Michalak was barely sighted.

Confidence and form restored, Wilkinson went on to play the crucial role in England's rugby's greatest day.

A scarcely believable 13 different serious injuries after the World Cup meant Wilkinson did not play again for his country until 2007. He fought on through the dark days and was still his country's first choice 10 at this year's World Cup, his fourth and final tournament.

How good was Wilkinson at his peak? He kicked well out of hand from both feet, distributed the ball swiftly and efficiently and as a defender he was in a class of his own.

Wilkinson was a ferocious tackler and threw himself fearlessly into the fray, which must have contributed to his many injuries.

As a running flyhalf he was efficient rather than incisive and southern hemisphere judges rated New Zealand's Andrew Mehrtens and Wallaby Stephen Larkham as his overall equal.

During his later years, Wilkinson seems to have reached some sort of emotional equilibrium at his French club Toulon and he retains his passion for the sport which has defined his life.

"Playing the game, representing the team, giving my all and never letting go has meant everything to me," he said on his website today. "I will continue to focus on being the very best I can be with Toulon Rugby Club."