Venturing into the scrum of Jonny’s life

Jonny Wilkinson’s Buddha-praising biography reveals a man worn out - physically and mentally - by his own drive.

John Dennen

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I am concerned about Jonny Wilkinson. Not for his knee, though he dislocated it playing for Newcastle against Gloucester on Tuesday night; injuries for English rugby’s golden boy are as repetitive as his kicking routine. No, I fear for his sanity and I worry that his madness is infecting me.

Do not read Wilkinson’s new book. Tackling Life will lure you in with a quaint pun. (The title works on two levels, sort of, does it? Is that even a pun? It’s probably not a pun. Is it a metaphor? Who gives a book a quasi-pun for a title?). You’ll think to yourself: ‘Oh, how amusing! Wilko’s into Buddhism and Schrödinger’s Cat.’ And you’ll read it because you think you’ll end up with some kind of conclusion. You know, life is a game of rugby, you smash the opposition out of the way, stay on your feet and steal the ball. Or words to that effect.

But Tackling Life is not a sports book, it’s a tragedy on some kind of Sophoclean tangent. ‘What the hell is Wilkinson’s tragic flaw?’, I ask myself. He’s possibly mad. I am sure most elite sports people have an element of the weird about them. They devote themselves to repeating an act over and over that, though probably fun at first, has little relevance to anything. But they persist with it, for glory or riches or fame. Or in Wilkinson’s case, because he’s not all there.

And businesses, fuelled by the enthusiasm of people like me, throw money at them and the athlete has no reason ever to come down from the rarefied air that those people must breathe. They drive themselves on with dread-inspiring slogans. ‘There is no harm in striving for perfection’, says Wilkinson, ‘there is only good’.

Wilkinson is someone whom it is almost impossible not to admire. He may occasionally drift into penning the likes of ‘I have kicked a lot of balls in my life’ and even masterful understatements like ‘I thought I was a winner and statistically at times I could back that statement up’. But anyone who sits down aged nine to write down their goals – playing for England and winning a World Cup – and then goes on to achieve them has done something special.

Wilkinson is also a remarkable character. The fly-half in rugby, like the quarterback in American football, is a leadership position, whether he’s a captain or not. The fly-half directs the team’s play. It’s a position you’d think would almost demand a confident character. But Wilkinson instead sounds beset by doubt, at least before and after games, agonising over every detail. It’s a wonder he manages to play at all.

So why does Wilkinson still sound so anguished? I always thought there was something to be said for having a mission, having a purpose, going for goals. Describing the moment after the final whistle at the World Cup final in 2003, moments after his drop goal had won the trophy for his country, he writes: ‘Hit the pause button right there. This is the moment I want to reside in forever.’ He goes on to say: ‘Experiencing every day like that night as if it was new each time would be paradise on earth. But it just isn’t possible.’

I find myself feeling sorry for this guy who has so much: money, a World Cup winner’s medal with the most successful England rugby team ever, and, when at his best, he really was spectacular. He was the transcendent athlete of his sport, lucky enough to be part of a team that for a few years was great and did set a new high for the game.

Wilkinson seemed to deserve it all because he trained and practised with this legendary, obsessive compulsion. He was the embodiment of practise, practise, practise. ‘This outlook’, he writes, ‘did however mean foregoing and sacrificing certain pleasures like relaxation and just enjoying one’s self’.

Only 29, he has already played in three World Cups. It doesn’t feel like that because he has played so little since 2003. His list of injuries is too long to go into here but they are almost constant and sound so painful. After his latest setback, The Times even produced a handy Jonny Wilkinson Injury Factfile.

There are numerous theories as to why he is injured all the time now: bad luck; a funny kind of fate, that those whom the gods bless they also curse; that his club side Newcastle – tending towards the bottom of the league – is too weak to protect him during the game. Rugby is a sport of violent contacts. When Wilkinson does play he does so with the hard ferocity of a nutter. Or maybe he just did too much. The way he trains he sounds utterly obsessed, maybe he could sustain that mental intensity but his body just couldn’t keep up.

‘I wore through both sides of my groin – the right side twice – kicking balls. I wrecked my back and tore muscles up and down my legs. I still kick every day but not for as long now.’

He burned brightly while he burned, but now he’s burnt out and he must be distraught. I can imagine the pain, that’s probably a cost he’s chosen to accept. But the major part of his life, day in day out, is playing that sport and it must be a heavy kind of hurt when he’s incapable of doing that.

That’s the cruelty of watching Wilkinson build himself back up again, only to break down once more. The qualities that made him such a talent, that relentless will and determination, these are the same qualities that mean he’s going to keep on grinding himself down. That’s why his book is a tragedy, because you can’t stop him from doing any of it.

John Dennen is a freelance sports writer.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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