Jonny Wilkinson MBE - English Rugby Union player. Born 25th May 1979

"Jonny is unstoppable. To ignore his greatness would be unconscionable." - Sydney Daily Telegraph

Diminutive Jonny Wilkinson (well, relatively - he's 5'10", 1.78 metres tall) has attracted a great deal of attention in the last year as the hero of the England World Cup winning team. As a kicker, he is unsurpassed, his single-mindedness apparent from the moment he takes the ball to place it.

Born in Frimley in Surrey, Jonny (yes, that's the correct spelling) recalls being aware of the game of rugby from the age of 3 or 4, no major surprise, given that his father, Phil was a player and lover of the game. The game seems to be in the blood, his brother Mark is the fitness trainer at the Newcastle Falcons.

As a teenager, Jonny proved himself as something of an all-rounder, playing both tennis and cricket for Hampshire schools, before being picked to represent his country for the 1997 English 18s Schools tour of Australia in 1997, where he immediately impressed by scoring 94 points in only 5 games.

Going Oop North

One of his teachers, Steve Bates had already spotted his potential and brought him to the attention of the professionals, and he moved up to Newcastle, having signed a two-year contract. Ever one to make a quick impression, he quickly became a vital part of the winning team in the 1997-98 season, and was marked as the most likely successor to Rob Andrew and the club's fly-half. Even more impressively, he was called up to the England first team as a bench substitute, against Scotland at Murrayfield.

Picked for the "Tour to Hell" summer tour to Australia in 1998, he suffered a temporary setback along with almost all the team, but he quickly picked himself up following some coaching, and help from "Doris". On his return to Newcastle, he reaffirmed his position as a class player when he became the Falcon's Number 10 and first-choice kicker.

1999 saw him picked for the Five Nations match against Scotland, and took Will Greenwood's place in some style, kicking 16 of 17 attempts at goal in his first three matches.

He has since been a stalwart of the England team, culminating in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, when he was part of the winning team, taking the William Webb Ellis Trophy from Australia. So critical was the part he played that he attracted the attention of the Aussie media, who claimed that he was the only reason England were performing well. They pretty much rubbished the team, calling them "boring", although they did later apologise. Sydney's Daily Telegraph had printed a voodoo doll of Jonny and issued "Stop Jonny" T-shirts, but later retracted their comments in an editorial, part of which forms the leading quote above.

Thank you, Doris

So, how does he do it? Part of the key is practice. He regularly shows up for training before his team-mates, and finishes with six kicks, each of which has to be perfect. This means that he stretches out his training for two or three hours. "Dedication is the key", as he concentrates on the mental and physical in equal measure. His stance is part of the secret. Hands clasped, head lowered to begin, and then eyes raised to the tops of the posts.

The hand-clasping he claims helps him blot out the outside world, as he imagines a wire connected between the ball and the space between the posts. "As I got more into kicking I became more involved in looking at other aspects, and one area I looked at was focusing from the inside, slowing down the breathing, relaxation, 'centring', which is a way of channelling my power and energy from my core, just behind my navel, down my left leg and into my left foot to get that explosive power." All he then has to do is propel the ball such that it follows the wire.

Worthy of note is that he is naturally left-footed, but through practice is as good with either foot.

So what about Doris? Well, she forms another component to his mental training. This involves him aiming to kick the ball into the lap of an imaginary woman, who sits in a particular seat, holding an ice cream (in some tellings, it's a can of Coke). The aim is to knock the ice cream out of her hands. "The idea was that, instead of aiming at the posts, you were aiming at something specific 30 yards back, changing the emphasis of where I was aiming and it made me really kick through the ball." (The watching of They Think It's All Over gave me another snippet, namely that as a young boy, he practiced by kicking toilet rolls around the house.)

All this has resulted in his being lionised, especially following the team's return from Australia. He has sometimes been labelled "Rugby's David Beckham" for his sporting prowess, youth and good looks. Certainly, his picture does seem to adorn the walls of many teenagers (and older!), but despite all that, he is not another Beckham. Where Becks seems to relish being in the limelight, Jonny is more the shy and retiring type, and would rather be known for his sporting prowess than as a media figure. He was typically modest about his part in the big win of 2003, and when interviewed during the welcome-home parade through London, pointed round to his team-mates, and said "They did it. They made it possible". Even the MBE he was awarded on 10th December, 2003 barely moved him. If he is proud, he keeps it tucked away.

Doubtless his good looks and charm would make him millions in the big world of media marketing, but my money is on him continuing in his present role, playing the sport he loves, and bringing delight to England's, and his own fans.

The British rejoinder to the Aussie attacks went along the lines of "If you want to fuck a Wallaby, use a Jonny". I'm not quite sure if he'd approve, but hey, I thought it was funny.

Written for Everything Quests: Athletes and Sports Figures
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