EXCLUSIVE: Jonny Wilkinson – Why I had to bow out
When the announcement came earlier this month it appeared to be a bolt from the blue, but that certainly wasn’t the case for Jonny Wilkinson. Test retirement had been on his mind for two years.
Playing for England had always been a pleasure, he’d always treasured it as an honour. But in recent times it had also served as a bewildering riddle which drove the fly-half icon to distraction in the search for answers and renewed peace of mind.
In the immediate aftermath of the national team’s ill-fated World Cup campaign, Wilkinson had expressed his desire to keep playing for his country. Despite the shattering manner of the quarter-final defeat against France and his own helplessness among the replaced players on the bench, the veteran seemingly retained the drive to carry on.
Taking it easy: Jonny Wilkinson can now focus on other things having retired from international rugby
While his employment at Toulon meant he would be prey to the RFU’s new edict against selecting overseas-based players, Wilkinson had spoken of proving his form again in France and trusting in fate.
Yet, deep down there were doubts which were nothing to do with this thorny issue. So when he came to consider retirement, the union restrictions didn’t really enter the equation.
What convinced him was the nagging feeling that it hadn’t been right for him, with England, for long enough.
‘After the World Cup I wanted to make things better and make things right but I realised that knee-jerk reaction (to carry on) had been lasting about two years,’ he said. ‘I was thinking about my future in terms of righting wrongs for myself and the team. That feeling had been going on for a long time and was affecting me in quite a profound way.
‘There was one period, coming off the back of the Australia tour last year, when I had questions about coming back into the England set-up again.
Iconic: Wilkinson”s match-winning contribution to the World Cup Final in 2003 will forever ensure he has a place in English hearts
‘I wondered if that was the right time (to quit), but the way I was going at Toulon, there was no way I was ready to let go. I kept thinking, “Next game it will all come good, next game it will all be amazing”.’
What particularly troubled Wilkinson was the contrast between club and country — the sense of fulfilment with Toulon which wasn’t being matched by his increasingly frustrating experiences with England.
Up for the cup: Wilkinson was the most devastating kicker of his generation at his peak in 2003
He struggled to fathom what was wrong, especially as he could see Toby Flood (below) make an impact after usurping him in the starting XV.
‘With the right conditions and set-up at Toulon I knew I could get the best out of myself,’ he said. ‘I waited a long time for those conditions with England but it just didn’t happen.
“It’s difficult to pinpoint what the problem was, but it just wasn’t right. I was unable to rediscover the environment that I thought could bring the best out of me. I was trying everything to turn it around. I would go back to Toulon and it felt like it all just happened for me. Everything there made sense.
‘With England it just didn’t happen and I’m not pointing the finger at anyone, but that was the situation.
‘In the Six Nations I was coming off the bench so I was seeing what Toby Flood could do for the team — he brought out the best in those around him and had a real connection with them. Whatever I felt capable of doing on the pitch it didn’t matter because it just didn’t happen.’
Once Wilkinson had spoken to his girlfriend, Shelley Jenkins, his family and others such as his long-term coach and mentor from Newcastle days, Steve Black, he decided it was the right moment to end a Test career which had yielded a staggering 1246 points, a World Cup triumph and two Lions tours.
He spoke to new England head coach Stuart Lancaster and was grateful for his supportive response. Yet, having made his mind up, he admits there is a tinge of regret that the glorious, sometimes tortuous story finished in dejection and defeat.
‘I can try to lie and say it doesn’t matter but it does matter,’ he said. ‘I always wanted to go out on a high, but it can’t matter too much because it’s not all about celebrating a player’s career.
‘Lewis Moody is another guy in the same position — he is someone else who has given everything to the cause. You can’t choose the outcome, all you can do is choose how much you put into it.’
Looking back over a stellar career, Wilkinson treasures the 2003 World Cup success and the build-up, the time spent with players such as Mike Catt and Richard Hill, the memory of Jason Robinson taking rugby union by storm, and all the epic victories.
Bowing out: It was a difficult end for the iconic No 10 in New Zealand
Naturally, he savours the moment he returned in 2007 after more than three years in enforced exile. He also looks back fondly on the Six Nations success this year and the honour of knowing that the World Cup in New Zealand was his fourth.
But as an indication of his enduring team ethic, Wilkinson cites a brutal trip to face the Springboks in 2007 as one of his fondest occasions.
‘I really enjoyed the tour even though we took a weakened squad and got hammered,’ he said. ‘There were a lot of young guys out there and we were up against it but the spirit was phenomenal. They fought for what really mattered and it was all about playing for your country.’
Changing of the guard: Toby Flood is now likely to take up the flyhalf role permanently
For all the angst and unrest generated by the recent tournament, Wilkinson is adamant that England are in good shape. ‘There is such a wealth of talent,’ he said. ‘So many players who will be involved have now had great experience of what immense pressure really is — not autumn internationals or Six Nations deciders but bigger than that. You need people who can stand up to that.
‘In terms of the No 10 position, there are guys like Owen Farrell coming through and Fordy (George Ford) too. The right person to mentor these guys as they develop is Toby Flood, because he has the experience now.’
In time, Wilkinson has a desire to coach and his passion lies in the concept of acting as a mentor. ‘Coaching the skills side of rugby really appeals to me,’ said Wilkinson who, despite his international retirement, has just signed a new sponsorship deal with Gillette.
‘I have worked so hard on my game over the years, so to do nothing with all that information I’ve taken onboard would be a waste. One-on-one coaching really appeals. I like being able to affect a person’s confidence and help them bring out the best in themselves. Dave Alred has been phenomenal like that for me.’
All that can wait though. First, he is driven to bring success to Toulon and last night was captain for their Top 14 encounter with Lyon. Today he will fly back to the North East for a family Christmas and on Boxing Day he will return to the Cote d’Azur, to resume his quest for improvement and fulfilment.
His England career is over but that had become an unsolvable puzzle. What’s left is the fun part.
Jonny Wilkinson is a Gillette ambassador — visit facebook.com/GilletteUK for exclusive content, competitions, and features.