SUNDAY, October 14, 4am, Paris. Jonny Wilkinson wasn’t feeling well. An upset stomach, an aching head, insomnia. It felt, he told his team-mates later that morning, like a bad hangover.
Such symptoms will be familiar to the English thousands who followed Wilkinson to France, as well as the countless others who watched his astonishing exploits from further afield.
For England’s supporters, such feelings will have been alcohol-induced. For England’s main man, it was all about the nerves. Tired, delicate and his head spinning, Wilkinson abandoned his fruitless quest for sleep at around 5.30am. The 28-year-old did his best to take his mind off his fragile condition – strumming chords from Arctic Monkeys numbers on a guitar and watching DVDs. Yet the nausea endured. The distress mental as well as physical, he cut an unfortunate figure when his concerned colleagues found him later.
He might be renowned as England’s Ice Man, but when the temperature rises, Wilkinson is prone to feel the heat like anyone else. “As much as people might think ‘that’s your job’ and ‘you don’t look nervous’, I tell you: it isn’t like that,” he said last night. It was an assertion that made his achievements seem all the more impressive.
Wilkinson can appear cold, a man lacking in emotion, a sporting robot who has been programmed to succeed. Yet his revelations that experiences such as Saturday’s frenetic World Cup semi-final can take a considerable toll have proved otherwise. At times he might not seem it, but the Newcastle Falcon is human and as such, is vulnerable to the same doubts and anxieties as anyone else. That he has become an expert at disguising such frailties is as obvious as it is astounding.
“You can feel and see your shirt moving with your heartbeat,” noted a player who, four years after kicking England to a dramatic World Cup win in Australia, plotted France’s downfall to secure a second successive final appearance. “You are thinking ‘this could put us in the lead’. Or ‘if I miss this I’ve stuffed up big-style’. The suggestion that you might not think that is a joke,” he explained with characteristic candour. At the weekend, England expected once more. At the weekend, Wilkinson delivered once more.
As he fired Brian Ashton’s team to a memorable triumph at the Stade de France, his expression didn’t demonstrate the internal agitation that would later prompt a sleepless night and ensure an uncomfortable morning. That he can still function in such circumstances is what makes Wilkinson such a remarkable sportsman.
It isn’t about his kicking capabilities. It is the manner in which he is able to compartmentalise his fears in situations that couldn’t be more fraught that defines Wilkinson as a sporting great. Like a golfer at the 18th green or a snooker player on the final black, his is a role that brings with it the greatest mental burdens. Great attention has been paid to the player’s physical state during a four-year period in which his fitness has proved problematic. But it is Wilkinson’s mental strength that makes him what he is. It is all in his head.
Pressure was a major talking point prior to what proved a dramatic fixture in France. But, while questions could be asked about that to which the tournament’s official balls had been inflated, those pertaining to Wilkinson’s capabilities to cope in a cauldron were not valid. He might have suffered long afterwards but during the match – at the time when it mattered most – this was a man at his cool-headed and calm best.
That is the talent, the aspect at which to marvel, the skill with which a man who led the all-time Six Nations scoring charts prior to travelling to France will ensure that he leaves it as the World Cup’s most-productive player also.
Whether he leaves as a double world champion remains to be seen, but none would bet against him. No matter what happens against South Africa this weekend, Wilkinson’s reputation will remain intact and his legend will endure.
Like a golfer at the 18th green or a snooker player on the final black, Wilkinson’s is a role that brings with it the greatest mental burdens