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‘I had an opportunity’: Jonny Wilkinson reveals how close he was to code switch

By Josh Raisey
New teammates Jonny Wilkinson (L) and Andy Farrell of England look on during the RBS Six Nations championship match between England and Scotland at Twickenham on February 3, 2007 in London, England. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Jonny Wilkinson’s name will forever be associated with rugby union, but the legendary England fly-half had a surprising opportunity to make the leap to rugby league during his career.

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The 2003 World Cup winner was a guest on the Seven: Rob Burrow podcast this week, hosted by the Leeds Rhinos legend and his wife Lindsey, where he was asked whether he contemplated a code switch during his trophy-laden career.

Wilkinson revealed that he received an offer from Super League powerhouse Wigan Warriors one summer during his injury ravaged four years between 2003 and 2007.

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WATCH as departing coach Jacques Nienaber drops a hint that he might return to the Springbok fold in the not too distant future

“I was injured for so long but I had a couple of opportunities,” the 44-year-old said.

“They were largely just there thrown out to help me out to say, ‘look, after your injuries, do you want to come and do a summer with us?’

“It was just a few months around the Wigan team at the time. And there was part of me that was like I’d love to go and find out.

“I always wondered: ‘Could I do it?’

“I always wondered if I could adapt, and I had an opportunity.”

While the majority of the rugby world would have been intrigued to see how the hard-tackling kicking machine fared in the other code, if only for a summer, he admitted that an injury during that time could have spelled the end of his career.

“The only issue was that had I reinjured, the rest of my career was gone. Clubs who employed me would never have let that go.”

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Though the move never came to fruition, Wilkinson described his love of rugby league on the podcast, and how he actually watches more league than union these days.

“It’s mad now,” the former World Rugby player of the year said.

“I probably watch more rugby league than I do rugby union, and it’s been like that for a long time.”

Wilkinson brushed shoulders with plenty of league greats during his England career, with Wigan legends Jason Robinson and Andy Farrell probably being the two biggest. He explained how he was “hugely inspired” by league and ex league players during his career, so much so that he persistently battled for the respect of his teammates.

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“I spent a lot of my time trying to impress those guys who came towards me,” he said.

“So like the Jasons [Robinson] and Andy Farrells, whenever I was next to them I was like I’ve got to do something so that they respect me.

“I love what the guys do. I love the fact that if you were to go take a ball it’s because you mean to score. And I do watch it now, constantly. I watch it all the time. If it’s on I find myself sat there going ‘oh, highlights of more Super League games or the NRL.”

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2 Comments
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Pecos 247 days ago

Then it would’ve been “Johnny who”? Since rugby went pro the only thing keeping league somewhat alive is the NRL.

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Shaylen 3 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

These guys will be utility players Nick it cannot be helped because coaches cannot help themselves. Rassie looks at players like these and sees the ability to cover multiple positions without losing much. It allows the 6-2 or 7-1. He wont change his coaching style or strategy for one player. At provincial level players like these are indispensable. If there is an injury to your starting 12 but your back up 12 is a bit iffy then a coach is going to go with the back up 10 who is gold and who can play a good 12. Damian Willemse for the Springboks is an obvious case, for the Stormers its the same. Dobson plays him at 12 or 15, with Gelant in the team he plays 12 but if Gelant goes down he doesnt go for his back up 15, he just puts Willemse there. With Frawley its the same at international and provincial level. He just slots in wherever. Frans Steyn made a career out of it. He was much maligned though as a youngster as he never fully developed into any role. He then went to Japan and France to decide for himself what kind of player he was, put on muscle and retained his big boot, ran over players and booted the ball long and came back into the Springboks after about 3 years away and was then certain about how he wanted to play the game no matter what position. Coaches cannot help themselves because they only want what is best for their teams and that means putting your most talented players on even if it means you cause them some discomfort. Sometimes players need to decide how they want to play the game and then adapt that to every position and let the coach decide how they want to use them.

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J
Jon 9 hours ago
Ireland and South Africa share the same player development dilemma

I think the main problem here is the structure of both countries make up. They are going to have very similar.. obstacles(not problems). It will just be part of the evolution of their rugby and they’ll need to find a way to make this versatility more advantageous than specialization. I think South Africa are well on the way to that end already, but Ireland are more likely to have a hierarchical approach and move players around the provinces. Sopoaga is going to be more than good enough to look up one of those available positions for more than a few years I believe though. Morgan would definitely be a more long term outlook. Sacha to me has the natural footwork of a second five. Not everything is about winning, if a team has 3 players that want to play 10s just give them all a good go even if its to the detriment of everyone, this is also about dreams of the players, not just the fans. This is exactly how it would be in an amateur club setting. Ultimately some players just aren’t suited to any one position. The example was of a guy that had size and speed, enough pace to burn, power to drive, and speed to kick and pass long, but just not much else when it came to actual rugby (that matched it). New Zealand has it’s own example with Jordie Barrett and probably shows what Reece Hodge could have been if the game in Australia had any administration. Despite the bigger abundance of talent in NZ, Jordie was provided with consistent time as a fullback, before being ushered in as a second five. Possibly this was due to his blood, and another might not have been as fortunate, but it is what it was, a complete contrast to how Hodge was used in Australia, were he could have had any position he wanted. When it comes down to it though, much like these young fellas, it will be about what they want, and I think you’ll find they’ll be like Hodge and just want to be as valuable to the team as they can and play wherever. It’s not like 63 International Cap is a hard thing to live with as a result of that decision!

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