Jonny Wilkinson

The rugby union player who scored the winning drop goal in the 2003 World Cup and spokesman for mental health issues
Wilkinson at a personal kicking practice session at the Toulon Rugby Club, France, 2013. ACTION PLUS SPORTS IMAGES / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

It is twenty years ago this month, but sometimes it feels like yesterday. 22 November 2003, Stadium Australia, Sydney. The Rugby World Cup Final between England and Australia is tied at 17-17, and there are 30 seconds of extra time left. The ball comes back to a figure in English white with a “10” on his back. In rugby, as in football, 10 is the sacred number, worn by the playmaker, the lynchpin, the creative genius. This 10 has already missed three drop goal attempts, all off his favoured left foot. Now he switches to his right. It’s not the cleanest connection, but if you’re an England rugby fan it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. The ball flies between the posts, and Jonny Wilkinson has won the World Cup.

If Wilkinson had done nothing since then except sit on the sofa and eat Mars Bars, he would still be immortal. He hasn’t, of course. In fact, he may never have eaten a Mars Bar in his life. As a player he was a relentless, obsessive, brooding perfectionist whose struggles shine a light on what we unthinkingly demand of those whom we deem heroes. He was also a man of great decency, honesty and integrity, and remains so.

In his 1944 essay The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler outlined the character of the ideal fictional detective. Since this “is not a fragrant world”, a specific type of man is needed. So too in the unforgiving arena of professional sport, particularly one as brutal and demanding as rugby. Philip Marlowe, meet Jonny Wilkinson.

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”

Wilkinson was only eighteen when he made his international debut in 1998, the youngest England player of the professional era and the second youngest in history. His second match was a 76-0 defeat by Australia in Brisbane. “Imagine as a young kid all your dreams about how your international career is going to go and what a joy it’s going to be. And suddenly you’re in a changing room feeling absolutely humiliated, to the extent that the crowd are jeering and laughing,” he once said. It was a drubbing which ended several careers and scarred many of the survivors. For Wilkinson, it was fuel: remember the humiliation, bottle the feeling, resolve that it will never happen again.

“He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”

Five years after Wilkinson’s debut, England were the world’s no.1 team and he was the world’s no.1 player. His kicking was immaculate, he had a bullet pass, and in the white heat of battle he almost always took the right option. Perhaps most notably of all, he seemed to have no regard for his own safety. He tackled like someone twice his size, not just bringing men down but knocking them backwards, the kind of hits which lift your team and demoralise your opponents.

“He is a lonely man.”

Since retiring from rugby, Jonny Wilkinson has been very open about his mental health issues and inspiring others to do the same. PHOTO BY GEORGE OLCOTT - CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED

Scarcely able to deal with the suffocating pressure, Wilkinson would spend days on his own during that victorious World Cup. Unable or unwilling even to go for a coffee with his team-mates, he “sat in the hotel room trying to watch TV, but it was just a light changing colour.” Wilkinson alone on the training pitch, kicking goal after goal long after his team-mates have changed, showered and gone home. Wilkinson training harder than perhaps any player has done before or since: top of every fitness test going, his warm-ups longer than the games themselves, unable even to get on flights until he’d completed sessions to his own satisfaction. ‘How can you do so much?’ his team-mates would ask. “How can you not?” he’d reply.

“Outside of the rugby bubble, there was nothing,” he has said. “What was exciting to me was, ‘Get out there and work harder. Get stronger’. Which means you have got to suffer. Suffering was my joy. All I had was those two hours every weekend when I dissolved into playing the game. I lived for those beautiful moments of being in the zone during the games. That was my happy place, that was where I was completely at one. In between those moments was suffering. And as I understood it, that’s how it had to be.

“When I was jumping around after the final whistle of the World Cup it was immensely fulfilling on the surface, but at a deeper level it wasn’t. I’d ticked off every goal I’d set myself, and I could not have felt more empty. Showing the cup at my club Newcastle a week later, I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing here.’” He was voted Sports Personality of the Year that December, and when he was handed that trophy he looked like he would rather be anywhere else. How could you win an individual award for a team game? It didn’t make sense. Or maybe it made perfect sense. “I’d built myself on an archetype of trying to be the martyr, the saviour and the warrior, and now I was being applauded and I couldn’t handle it.”

“He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”

Such disproportionate public acclaim for one man could easily have angered his team-mates, and it is testament to Wilkinson’s essential good nature that this was never the case. Quite the opposite: they all had a deep regard for him, both admiringly as a player and affectionately as a friend. And they all wanted to protect him, not from the opposition but from himself, knowing that his obsessive nature would soon manifest itself in physical ways as well as mental ones.

It did so, and with a vengeance. Even by the attritional standards of professional rugby, his injury list was something else: broken shoulder facets, upper arm haematomas, repeatedly ruptured knee ligaments, appendicitis, torn adductor muscles, hernias, ribs, kidney damage, ankles and more. He was out so often and for so long that sometimes it seemed he might never play again. His tally of 91 caps for England – including a second, much more unexpected run to the World Cup final in 2007 – obscures the fact he missed more than 60 internationals in that time.

He was not the first sportsman to discuss his mental health struggles, but few have had a higher profile, and fewer still have looked so deeply into the issue. PHOTO: FANNY SCHERTZER - OWN WORK, CC BY 3.0

By 2009 “I was a shell of the player I’d been when I was 20 years old. All I’d managed to do was take the bright shining light of my potential and turn it into this dim, weak being.” He had been with Newcastle all his career, winning the Premiership in his first season but now perennially struggling against relegation, and he needed a change. Too loyal to go to any domestic rival, he would have to look abroad. Toulon came in for him, against the advice of many because of his history with injuries. It was a long way from Tyneside to the Côte d’Azur, in every way. Misgivings, his own and other people’s, be damned. He went.

“The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.”

As the man who had masterminded the defeat of France in successive World Cup semi-finals, Wilkinson arrived in Toulon with a certain amount of baggage. Tu nous as fait du mal, they’d say to him: you have hurt us. And he was so different from them. The Toulonnais are open, volatile, bombastic, passionate: Mediterranean people in a vibrant port town. Wilkinson was, well, Wilkinson.

But the differences were precisely what made it work. The Toulonnais saw that beneath his closed exterior he was a man who deeply valued the white of egalité and the red of fraternité. In turn they gave him the third colour, blue: liberté, the freedom to be who he wanted to be rather than who he’d always felt he should be. His injuries receded. He smiled, laughed, looked reborn. The sun bleached his hair and browned his skin. Beau pied, belle gueule, they said: beautiful feet, beautiful face.

“You go to France, it’s sunny and by the sea, people speak a different language, and you feel like you are on holiday. You have this refreshing opening, and you start to just be grateful for playing a bloody game. You think, ‘This is a joy’.” In the Stade Mayol before matches, the announcer would read out the players’ names in turn, each of them to cheers of varying volume. All except one. “Numéro dix, Jonny….” the announcer would begin, and 17,000 people would roar “WILKINSON!” in unison.

When he began to worry about living up to the fans’ expectations, his team-mates helped him realise that he could answer that question only by negating it altogether. Ultimate control could come solely from not seeking it, both individually and as a collective. “You cannot create team spirit logically. It has to be liberating. It’s about someone just saying, ‘I let go’. And then someone else lets go. That unified goal, that united striving and purpose comes through and – bang! You get something that you cannot understand. That’s the beauty of sport. France taught me humility. People just said ‘let’s go out and play. None of us have got long left, and throwing away the opportunity to play the game is the thing you will regret most.’”

His final match was the 2014 Top 14 final against Castres. Toulon players wore special jerseys with “Merci Jonny” stitched into the collar, and after their 18-10 victory supporters from both teams sang God Save The Queen in honour of the man they called Sir Jonny. “This is what I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren,” said Mathieu Bastareaud: “that I’ve played a with a great man.”

“He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.”

The liberation of his final five years in the game has filtered through into every aspect of Wilkinson’s life now. He has studied Buddhism and quantum physics, learned languages and taken up the guitar. “There’s no such thing as business or sport. Or winning. Or failing. We make these things up ourselves, and it’s important that we’re also able to reinvent, redefine and redesign these ideas. That’s the only way for us to become who we really are. I don’t see there being a work-life balance, or a business-life balance. It’s just life. It’s not a journey because it’s not going anywhere. There’s no destination, it’s an adventure. Life deepens, it doesn’t go linear from here to there.”

He was not the first sportsman to discuss his mental health struggles, but few have had a higher profile, and fewer still have looked so deeply into the issue

He was not the first sportsman to discuss his mental health struggles, but few have had a higher profile, and fewer still have looked so deeply into the issue. “We have to get beyond that beautiful beginning where we’re all talking about it and sharing our experiences. We have to get to a point where we’re asking: ‘What next?’ It can’t all be about ‘dealing’ and ‘coping’ and ‘managing’ with mental health. The route we often go down is managing pressure and keeping pressure alive. It’s like building a wall to keep dragons out, and if the wall is still standing you think it’s doing a great job. You can’t move anywhere or explore your boundaries but you’re thinking, ‘hey, at least I haven’t been burned yet.’

“When I was playing rugby, I wore a rugby shirt and dissolved into what I was doing. The problem was my attachment to that idea of who I was meant I never took that shirt off. What resonates now with me is open up, be vulnerable, explore. The now and what has been is inevitable, but the next moment is up for grabs. That’s the beauty of being human.”

“If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in. He is the hero; he is everything.”

“Winning the World Cup,” he says, “has nothing to do with who I am now.” This is the greatest irony: that the only person for whom that moment does not define Wilkinson is Wilkinson himself. For the rest of us, it still does: how could it not?

But perhaps there is a halfway house, a place where that moment can mean not simply winning a trophy but something much deeper. There is a photograph taken from behind Wilkinson as he heads down the tunnel after the World Cup victory. All around and above are England fans, arms outstretched as they lean over the railings towards him, desperate not just to acclaim him but to bask in his stardust, to touch the hem of that garment with the sacred 10 on it. He has his own arms held out wide as he walks, the eddies of his lifeforce swirling around his fingertips, but his head is bowed: a man generous enough to give himself to those who ask, but humble enough not to think better of himself for doing so. Jonny Wilkinson, reluctant messiah: then, now, always.

Boris Starling is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist. He created the “Messiah” series which ran for five seasons on BBC1

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November 2023, People, reputations

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