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Jonny Wilkinson: 'From the very beginning, I was driven by huge fear'

By Liam Heagney
Legendary ex-England player Jonny Wilkinson at the Global Rugby Players Foundation launch (Photo by John Phillips/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Within seconds of sitting down with Jonny Wilkinson, it became abundantly clear that milestones and achievements in his stellar rugby career are things that are very much past tense.

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It’s 10 years ago this very weekend when he last laced up, guiding Toulon with aplomb around the Stade de France to see off Castres and complete the Top 14/European Heineken Cup double he took with him into retirement.

A decade retired. He never realised. “I didn’t know that,” he shrugged, going on to explain to RugbyPass that the highlights reel from his former life isn’t something that lives on in him. “I have got a different relationship with me of the past.

“I can call on that if I need it but it’s not who I am. I’m exploring where my opportunity is and that’s great. That has been a big part of the journey. When you are tied up with who you were, essentially when you get older, you’re losing. Getting older is losing whereas when you are just more here and now everything is a bit brighter.”

The unawareness of his 10-year-retirement-after-the-double-win anniversary doesn’t mean he is aloof to the players he signed off with. Toulon, at that time, was a cosmopolitan melting pot.

Its starting XV in the French final consisted of four South Africans, three English, three French, two Aussies, two Kiwis and one Argentinian and they still touch base.

“Yeah, yeah, there is, you always cross paths and it’s a beautiful thing. You know roughly where they are and some even more than others. You kind of know just before (retiring) where everyone is heading, you can see it in them.

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“Some of the South African guys were already filling their ranches back home, getting ready for that. Some people were already lining up coaching stuff. Some people were doing degrees and were ready to go, and you can get a sense. There were a few of us like, ‘Let’s just see’. I keep in touch with a lot of people, and you see them.”

Given his status as a Rugby World Cup winner with England in 2003, the No10 who famously kicked the extra time drop goal that finally got the better of Eddie Jones’ Wallabies in Sydney, Wilkinson could easily still be a face of rugby around the world but yearning that type of attention isn’t how he is wired.

Yes, he will do the odd bit of TV punditry, and he pops along to Pennyhill to help the England kickers as well. However, life beyond the game is what intrigues him most these days, a smorgasbord type of interest reflected in the wide variety of topics broached in his twice-weekly podcast, I Am.

That adventure is now 104 episodes old and a pointer as to what Wilkinson gets up to is reflected in the two most recent shows. Firstly, there’s an interview with professor John Amaechi, the ex-NBA basketballer, who is now a psychologist and transformational leadership expert.

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There is also a Q&A where the recently-turned 45-year-old answers listeners’ questions on the topic of resilience – how do people come back after their confidence gets knocked, and how do they reinvent themselves after heartbreak and disappointment especially when it keeps coming?

Rugby simply doesn’t grab his attention in the same way. “It’s just not my passion so much anymore. I’m just not drawn to it. I see a game on TV now and I will be like ‘Oh’ and then I find myself over here (elsewhere in the room and not watching). I don’t know why.

“I trust that over there (away from watching) is where I’m supposed to be because here (watching) is still, ‘S***, is he better than me?’ That kind of stuff. There is nothing in it for me there. But when I go and do the punditry stuff, I enjoy it. I watch and I really get into it, and I love that, but there is a relationship with rugby there where it’s in and out. Definitely.”

It doesn’t mean he will give someone who addresses him as Jonny Wilkinson, the rugby player, the cold shoulder. “I find it a nice opportunity to engage in that. But through that conversation, I always find there is a deeper one waiting to happen and I like to get to that one rather than the top one, so I just be open and very honest,” he explained following the launch of the Global Rugby Players Foundation in central London.

“We have just been talking about the power of listening to people and even just chatting to these guys here during these conversations, it’s inspiring to be around people who are just willing to explore their next challenge because as rugby players that is what you do and that why it is inspiring to be around people.

“Once you forget there is a way that good looks, good doesn’t have to be built like this or be doing this, it’s just the presence. Just honesty, willingness, sharing and connecting and when you meet that, it doesn’t matter what it is. We used to get it from rugby but it’s so present everywhere else as well.”

Ten years deep into his retirement, how does he rate his post-playing transition? “It’s still going. Constantly. And it’s always based around the fact that from the very beginning of my life I was driven by huge fear. My life has been about turning and facing that. It has involved rugby and it has been outside rugby and it will be facing that for the rest of my life – and I will enjoy that.”

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A post shared by Jonny Wilkinson (@jonnywilkinsonofficial)

Mornings like Thursday help. “Definitely. Just what the guys are talking about, hearing those stories from people you look up to who are now not doing what you thought was the be-all and end-all and they are happy and thriving would be a message that would bring so much grounding to me as a player.”

Switching to the modern-day game, how does he view the leading out-halves who have carved it up this season in a Gallagher Premiership where this weekend’s four semi-finalists have now become two June 8 finalists? “Brilliant. What a great time to be an England coach with players like that.

“Young guys coming through. Fin and Marcus (Smith) and then the likes of George (Ford), Owen (Farrell) all in there. Finn Russell playing in that, it’s great to see him on the English scene. But also Orlando Bailey behind him, brilliant. It’s exciting. You need a good 10.”

Having been at Newcastle from 1997 through to 2008, Wilkinson spent six years in France after he decided to move across the Channel. It was at a time when he could combine playing French club rugby with England selection, a situation that no longer exists for the likes of the Racing 92-bound Farrell.

Wilkinson reckoned Farrell will be inspired by what he discovers overseas. “He has been drawn there for lots of reasons, lots of it is rugby but lots of it his own personal, amazing journey in his life. It’s all connected, and I think he is going to go there open and ready to fully experience it all.

“It [France] is a cultural thing, there is an opening of your mind, your values, your acceptance of other ways, inspired by new possibilities of the way things can be done and that balance is going to bring even more from him.”

As regards the game in general, Wilkinson suggested its evolution as a fully-fledged professional sport is still happening. “I think it’s on a journey, on a journey. It’s unfolding and it will find itself but maybe this is the path it has to go through to find it.”

That path might tempt Wilkinson into a crossover. He enjoys assisting Steve Borthwick’s England kickers now and again but the more he hears about the Red Roses, the more he is intrigued by women’s rugby and the growth of the English women’s team who are now under the baton of John Mitchell just over a year out from Rugby World Cup 2025.

“I do watch, and I fortunately get the chance to meet a lot of women players as well,” he enthused. “A really good friend of mine works with the women’s team doing the skills coaching and some of the kicking and I work with the men’s team, and we are constantly swapping stories.

“It’s amazing. It’s like we are both sort I’d love to come and work over there so hopefully I can get a chance to get a bit deeper into it and go and see what it is all about, but they seem to be doing perfectly fine without me.”

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