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ESPN SCRUM / ESPNscrum Columnist
Tom May
Tom May | Columnist Index
Tom May has played top flight rugby for 16 seasons in a career that has taken in Newcastle Falcons, Toulon, Northampton Saints and now London Welsh. He played for England in 2009 and with experience of top flight rugby in England and France, he knows the game better than most.
England
The real Jonny Wilkinson
Tom May
May 29, 2014
Tom May played alongside Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon and Newcastle © Getty Images
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While planning this, I was sat in an Italian deli and asked the barista what he thought of the most famous rugby player in the world. The response was, "Who?" He didn't recognise him when I showed him a picture. It was strange because there is no doubt that Jonny Wilkinson has become one of, if not the most iconic rugby player of all time. Something about him resonates with everyone; his undoubted talent on the field, his focused attitude or for some, his looks. He has got it all.

I first met 'JW' playing in a London & South-East final trial game at Rosslyn Park. I played alongside him and Simon Amor - now coach of England Sevens. From there it seemed I tried to follow him as much as I could; up the other end of the A1 to Newcastle Falcons where we spent 10 years together and then chasing the sun down to Toulon on the Côte d'Azur. Sixteen years on, Jonny has unquestionably become a name synonymous with the game of rugby.

I could see the intensity he brought to his rugby. I hadn't contemplated life as a professional rugby player by the age of 17 or 18; it was new to me. He clearly had and down to the minutest of details. He understood the work ethic that it would take to become a professional player. This work ethic is a trait we all hear of when we read about the hours of kicking practice that he puts in.

 
"Every child gets an autograph. Jonny understands the difference it makes to someone - he continues to do the same the world over"
 

But actually, he has changed the way people approach professionalism within the game.

At Newcastle, some seasoned international players had hugely different standards to a young teenager who was taking the game by storm. This set him apart from an early age. He knew what it was all about and was before his time in terms of his understanding. It takes some years to really grasp what is required but he knew it immediately.

He drove himself on to new levels of performance never seen before. He wanted to be the best.

But that was not just on the rugby field. Look at how he speaks French, how he plays the guitar - flawlessly. He won't stop until he gets to a level that he is happy with. I remember a round of golf four of us played at Slayley Hall in Northumberland. Only three returned together. Jonny wasn't happy with how it was going by the fourth hole so he said he was done and went in. The three of us remaining didn't really think anything of it. That was Wilko. His drive for perfection isn't confined to the inside of a rugby field or gym.

But that's what makes him so successful and the person he is.

One thing it doesn't make him is boring. Very often being dedicated is easily confused with being boring - a mistake I clearly made during my early professional years. The Jonny many won't get to see is the guy I have been fortunate to know over the last 16 years or so. Yes, he is focused and motivated beyond belief but that doesn't affect his personality. I have spent lots of time with him alone and amongst a group and we have had some of the funniest, and at times, bizarre conversations I think have ever heard.

Wilkinson's final match

  • Jonny's Toulon play Castres in a re-run of last year's Top 14 Final in Paris this Saturday. After a slow start to the season with some uncharacteristic losses to teams like Oyonnax and Bordeaux, Toulon have bounced back and find themselves in a strong position to win a double. Their chances are high. They have a team of superstars compared to Castres who have a sprinkling of world-class quality - Wilkinson, Giteau, Hayman, Habana, Mitchell. There are loads more of course. Antonie Classens and Rory Kockott are the main leaders for Castres, Kockott the key to their chances of success. Sharp around the breakdown he has the ability to expose Toulon's big lumps if they aren't defensively in place quickly and his goal kicking is on a par with the mighty JW.
  • The Top 14 Final is a huge spectacle in France. We are at a point in time where Toulon are set to create a huge piece of history for their club. So much work and time has gone into the development of the club through recruitment and marketing, which have all put Toulon on the map internationally. No one has given more to the cause than Jonny Wilkinson and who would deny him the chance to finish an incredible career by winning two of the biggest games in club rugby.

He is a genuinely funny guy. When you meet up for a meal in a restaurant he is the first to relax and have fun and joke about. He comes on nights out, granted not all the time, but then you wouldn't expect that from someone in his position. I think it was much harder for him to relax when he was in Newcastle due to the pressures from the UK media and the internal pressures he felt due to his seemingly never ending injuries.

Jonny's arrival in Toulon totally reinvigorated him. For someone who spent a huge amount of time in the physio room in north-east England, he's managed to avoid spending any significant time there since his arrival in the south of France. He looks far more relaxed to the person I knew before the move. At times he looked very stressed and I have no doubt that the pressure he was feeling from media and injury had a huge amount to do with it. Of course there is pressure in Toulon - when you are hailed as the saviour of a club that's going to be natural - but as he has got older and more experienced he seems far better placed to deal with it now. Life there and the French people are more relaxed which means he can get on with the things he enjoys when he wants without being bothered.

Many modern day sports people who are just as instantly recognisable as Jonny love the limelight. There are several high profile examples in football and cricket who forget their huge sporting talent and focus more on the off-field trappings. This is something that 'Wilko' has never done.

In my opinion that's what makes him even more impressive.

He simply wants to be the best he can be. He wants to win, daily. The attention of being a sporting superstar doesn't bother him, in fact he doesn't want it. He doesn't put himself in a position to do anything wrong. At some point or other most other sports people will make an error of judgement - not Jonny. It's like he has a manual that lets him know what is required in every situation without having to learn the hard way. It's natural for him. We hear so much about stars being role models for young kids, inspiring them to do something they love, taking the most from the opportunities they are given. Jonny is one of those guys. He is polite, dedicated and has high moral standards. He understands his position as an icon and the difference he can make to someone's life.

There is no better example for this than a game we played down in Worcester years back. One of the first games of the season, it was over 30 degrees, red hot and grim to play in. Post-game we all changed and had some food and headed for the safety and comfort of the air conditioning on the bus. One problem, the air con doesn't work unless the engine is running and there was no sign of JW. An hour passed. What was he doing? We were thinking 'Hurry up man!!' Lads start taking clothing off, ending up sat in their boxer shorts on the bus sweating buckets. "There he is" someone shouts only for us to look round and see the swarm of kids following him. This only meant one thing. We were there for a lot longer. Every child gets an autograph. Jonny understands the difference it makes to someone - he continues to do the same the world over.

All the very best of luck for your future mate, no matter what you end up doing I have no doubt that it will be just as successful as your career on the rugby field. It has been a pleasure to be able to train alongside, play next to you but even more than that, know you.

© Getty Images
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