It’s the first time since 1995 that the Rugby World Cup will happen without Jonny Wilkinson, and England’s 2003 hero is starting to understand what he is missing. He’s described not being on the team — he is a tournament ambassador — as “torture,” even if he remains a moral guardian for the squad. More pressing to him, of course, is England’s mental state — he saw things unravel first-hand four years ago in New Zealand, and he also saw Dylan Hartley and Manu Tuilagi remove themselves in recent weeks.
Wilkinson recently told the press that these observations heightened his beliefs that self-discipline will be the key to success in the World Cup, at least if England wants to succeed on their home soil the same way they did in 2003. He uses the phrase “mental investment” and feels that, recent events notwithstanding, most of the team on Stuart Lancaster’s squad will be prepared to make similar sacrifices to those Wilkinson famously did.
“When I speak with these guys,” said Wilkinson, “I see [players who] care a hell of a lot” about what they do. He made the remarks while helping fellow 2003 Cup winner Will Greenwood and Prince Harry launch the Cup trophy tour, which will send the Webb Ellis Cup to over 300 destinations across Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales in the months to mid-September. Rugby World Cup tickets, available here, have been selling briskly wherever the Cup makes an appearance.
“Every brick” in the path the team builds itself is important, Wilkinson observed. Doing things “just because they’re written down” means little, since “anyone can do that.”
While he sympathises with the players who are missing out, Wilkinson largely seems to agree with Stuart Lacaster’s decision, noting that he’s sure the players will look back at the situations and say “What was I thinking?”
The situations brought back memories, too, of the embarrassment Wilkinson felt back when he let his own standards slip in 2002. The lapse was just being a few minutes late to a team meeting, yet he still visibly winces in shame when he remembers it. “Just being late [for the meeting] destroyed he,” he explains, saying he found himself outside the closed meeting door not wanting to knock — not because he was afraid he would get ribbed by his teammates, but because he didn’t want to be the one who let his team down.
For a moral guardian, then, England needs look no further. The national management have already informally requested Wilkinson help out. Indeed, Wilkinson (who currently spends most of his time coaching the Welsh Leigh Halfpenny team at Toulon) is not exactly the worst choice for mentoring George Ford and Owen Farrell. Their predecessor believes they might both be starting at 10 this fall, though it will depend on the opposition.
Wilkinson also prefers the one-on-one approach to being brought in to lecture the squad on how they can win the World Cup in the last dying seconds. If they want that, he said, he would tell them the process “needed to start long ago.” The reason is he isn’t quite sure what the current generation of players wants — if they said they wanted help on a one-on-one basis then “I’d be there like a shot,” yet he doesn’t want to “come in and interfere.”