Jonny Wilkinson’s retirement from international rugby came as no great shock to most but it has sparked a wealth of eulogies on his England and Lions career, all heaping praise on a man who was a consummate professional. I was lucky enough to meet him on a few occasions, all of them memorable, and I thought I would share two or three of those stories.
England played Australia at Twickenham in the 2009 Autumn Internationals and at the post-match dinner Jonny was was one of the last to arrive as was his habit. Me and my guests were delighted when he came and sat with his girlfriend at the table next to us. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that whoever my guests for a game are, if they could have just one photograph with a player, if they could get just one autograph, it would be Jonny Wilkinson’s. I suggested that my guests take their chance and get their photograph sooner rather than later as I knew that he would be in demand, and sure enough, both before and after dinner, there was a steady stream of people coming to see him. Jonny took this all in his stride, as professional off the field as he is on it, smiling and chatting and posing for endless snaps just as he always does.
What was revealing for me was the reaction of the young Australian players. As coffee was served a couple of them nervously approached Jonny who, when he saw them, stood up and chatted as players that had been competing against each other that afternoon. Then one of the Aussies bashfully asked if he could have a photograph with him, then the other had his picture taken, then all three together, then Jonny signed programmes for them, and as they walked away one said to the other ‘That guy is awesome!’. It is clear that Jonny Wilkinson is a worldwide legend revered even by the Australians from whom he snatched the 2003 Rugby World Cup with ‘that’ drop goal. Over the course of the evening all bar the most experienced Australians came over and had their picture taken with him and went away as excited as any schoolboy fan.
After another game I got Jonny to sign my dinner invitation and I noticed that he had put ‘Good Luck to ya’ on it. When I looked at other autographs he had signed he had put other messages such as ‘Nice to meet you’ or Hope you enjoyed the game’. His professionalism extends to even making each one of the thousands of autographs he signs memorable to each person.
However, he is very aware of the value of merchandise that he has signed. He will happily sign a shirt that has already been signed by several other players but he is much more discerning about having only his autograph on a shirt. Last season I was asked by Mersea Island RFC to get a shirt signed for for their long-serving half back Jonny Williams who was retiring from playing. The only opportunity I had was in Dublin at the dinner after England had won the Six Nations, so I went over to where he was sitting and he quizzed me about who it was for and what would happen to it. He eventually signed it when I asked it to be personalised to ‘Jonny W’ making any resale value much lower. It’s worth having a look at eBay to see what some items signed by Jonny are selling for.
The final personal story I have is about Jonny Wilkinson’s personal dedication to being the best he can on the field. Toby Flood was first choice No 10 for the 2011 Six Nations campaign with Jonny usually coming in in the second half. After the final whistle I noticed that as the players came off the field, Jonny would stay on with one of the coaches and go through a rigorous routine of passing, catching and sprinting from the 10 metre line to the try line and back. He would do this for about 20 minutes before finally going into the changing room. When I saw him at the post-match function I asked him what all that extra exercise was all about. He explained that when he prepares for a game it is to play for 80 minutes and when he doesn’t get a full game ne needs to expend the energy his body expected to use.
There are plenty of articles in the press and on the internet extolling the qualities of Sportsmanship, Respect and Discipline that Jonny Wilkinson embodies, and for me, that is the legacy he leaves. I hope future players will look to emulate him in these aspects as well as his desire to play to the best of his ability.