Ten years on from the night when that drop-goal turned England into rugby’s champions of the world, Jonny Wilkinson says he is finally at peace with the achievement that, inevitably, will define his life.
Almost from the moment his kick dramatically condemned Australia to defeat 20 seconds from the end of extra time in the 2003 World Cup final in Sydney,
Wilkinson has spoken of the demons born that night.
But on the 10th anniversary of England lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy, Wilkinson revealed that now, finally, he can view what happened in Sydney at face value.
‘I was desperate that World Cup would not be the defining moment of my life,’ he said. ‘I was determined to fight, fight for something more. While I am still playing that will always be the case, because without the desire to come up with something more what is the point?
‘There have been other notable moments. I reached the next World Cup final with England, I played for the British and Irish Lions and Toulon won the Heineken Cup earlier this year. But at the end of the day if I had won another World Cup was it going to be dramatic as what happened in 2003? Would it have had the romance, or the intensity, of a Hollywood film?
‘Looking back, what took place in Australia was eerie, magical and had a mystique about it. Just to say I was part of that and on the winning team has to be good enough for anyone. Ten years later, I can say, “Damn, that was the day”.’
As he took off his jacket and sat down at a cafe overlooking the Mediterranean here yesterday, Wilkinson tried to disguise his discomfort. At 34, the years have taken their toll. To nobody’s real surprise, he was the one man from England’s 2003 winning team to spend the 10th anniversary of that triumph last Friday playing rugby.
Just as predictably, his precision for Toulon, which keeps his current club top of the French league, was as lethal as it had been for England.
To witness him manage Toulon’s 15-6 win over Perpignan was to see a man adapt his skills and mind to the demands of the modern game with a cunning and clinical application. Simply put, he has belatedly found that rugby does not need to be all-consuming. He has learned to embrace his success rather than be haunted by it.
Hours before he played he took a leisurely walk on one of the beaches close to the villa he shares with his new wife, Shelley.
During his days with England and Newcastle he would have regarded such behaviour as reckless. Not any more, it appears, although Wilkinson did insist, with a laugh: ‘I was fully hatted-up, though! I like to think I have changed but match days don’t count.’ Even so, he admits that it is not uncommon for him to call Shelley from the hotel where Toulon’s players assemble before matches just for a chat.
‘I’ll sometimes call her 10 minutes before we leave for the ground and we’ll talk about anything other than rugby,’ he said. ‘She comes to watch the games but is the first to acknowledge she doesn’t understand everything that goes on.’
Only Wilkinson could have forgotten the 10th anniversary, of course. ‘Our team manager, Tom Whitford, told me that it was all kicking off on Twitter when I arrived at the ground before kick-off,’ he said. ‘It had slipped my mind as I was so engrossed with our game.’
Playing alongside him at Toulon is Matt Giteau, who played for Australia that rain-soaked evening in Sydney. And it was tackling Giteau that flattened Wilkinson and sent shock waves through the England team, as well the thousands fans watching. For what seemed an eternity, Wilkinson needed treatment for a ‘stinger’ in his arm. ‘I think I caught Matt’s hip,’ he said.
History tells us Wilkinson recovered. ‘But in my next game for Newcastle, I had another “stinger” and didn’t play again for 10 months,’ he said. ‘Looking back, I have to think how close I was to not being able to finish the World Cup final.’ Once Wilkinson had sent the ball spinning through the posts to win the game and ceased cavorting across the field, he returned to the dressing room a confused man. It would take years to clear his mind, it transpired.
I lay down on a bed in the physio’s quarters as I needed to get a grip of what had just happened,’ he recalled yesterday. ‘It was like a dual conversation going on in my mind. One voice was saying: “This is amazing”. The other voice was quietly spoken and saying: “What happens now? Am I going training in my beanie hat in the snow in Newcastle in five days’ time and kicking into a howling wind?” I tried to find a way for the two voices to work together but I couldn’t.’
Wilkinson had been a virtual hermit throughout that World Cup. ‘I hated being singled out,’ he said. His picture was published in one of the more sober
Australian newspapers kicking at goal with the caption: ‘Is that all you have got?’ On the morning of the final, another publication in Sydney pictured him as a voodoo doll and invited readers to place pins in the image. ‘Did they put some in my shoulders, neck and knees?’ he asked drily. Only once in two weeks did he venture on to the beach at Manly, where England prepared for the semi-final with France and then the final itself. ‘I went with my dad and sat by a wall with my cap pulled down and glasses on,’ he said. ‘But I could see how much it meant to all the England supporters who went past. I think I was haunted by the fear of failure. I suppose the pitch was my only sanctuary.’
His homecoming was bitter-sweet. ‘Everyone wanted to congratulate me, but I was injured, then injured again,’ he said. ‘They looked at me as someone who had helped win the World Cup. I looked at myself as worthless.’ It was a cycle that took him years to break. On Friday, Wilkinson led the Toulon players on a slow walk round the pitch to applaud the crowd. ‘It’s part of the culture here,’ he said. Supporters reached out to touch his hand or ask for an autograph. Fame is no longer a burden.
‘I think I never properly recovered from the ramifications of the World Cup, or my injuries, until I came here in 2009,’ he said.
Wilkinson is building a business for the future, founding a clothing company with his brother, Mark. But rugby is still his primary business and Wilkinson is still driven to suck all he can from the remnants of his career.
‘I am a lucky man,’ he said. More importantly, Jonny Wilkinson is at last a contented man as well.
Content courtesy of The Mail on Sunday.