<
>

Jonny Wilkinson: Taking the next step along life's pathway

Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

Moments after Leigh Halfpenny had been named Man of the Match for his role in Toulon's Champions Cup semi-final win over Leinster, he fielded the usual questions in his own under-stated modest way. Jonny Wilkinson was standing next to him, in his Sky Sports punditry capacity, and looked on like a proud father. He labelled Halfpenny's performance "world-class". Halfpenny, in turn, looked a little bashful.

At the end of last season Toulon celebrated a Top 14 and European Cup double with the old England fly-half playing an integral part in both triumphs. It was bittersweet; it was to be Wilkinson's last action for the Rouge et le Noir. But they still talk of him; they still adore him down at the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur. Though he missed out on an official knighthood in the New Year's list, the Toulonais have crowned him Sir Jonny. But it is now a case of the king is retired, long live the king. Halfpenny is their new deadeye kicker with Wilkinson the tutor.

Wilkinson now spends a week a month at Toulon, focusing on skills. He was mooted as a potential successor to Pierre Mignoni, who leaves his Toulon role as attack coach at the end of the season for the head coach spot at Lyon, but Wilkinson has politely declined. It is an uneasy fit, his outlook is more suited to the individual. Wilkinson still lives in a realm of self-doubt, an unquenchable thirst for improvement and introspection.

A brief summation of Wilkinson's philosophical view on life is one of pathways: individuals are at different stages on a journey down their respective avenue but reaching the end of that journey should remain perennially elusive. This view is married into his role as mentor.

"I have serious reservations about being able to coach a group of players," Wilkinson said speaking at a Land Rover event at Farnborough RFC. "It's very different to taking someone one on one where you get deep into someone's personality and work with them on a day-to-day basis. I adore working with people and getting to know them and finding out what they need in a supportive role. Whether that's in rugby or in other fields, I do feel there is a connection there.

"You let people know you are there for them and when they succeed, I succeed." Jonny Wilkinson

"It isn't a straight line between going from A to B. You have to work to get there. Wherever you are on that path, you are still on your way. If it feels bad, you aren't far away and if it feels good, perhaps you aren't that close. You don't ever really want to get to that endpoint; it is about the path leading there. And that's what I love doing, helping people on that path."

He would have approved of Halfpenny's take on his own game management. In an interview back in October, the Toulon fullback was asked about his own skillset. To the person on the street, show them a video of Halfpenny's deadly kicking and general game management, you would be hard to find fault in anything he does - he is a Lion after all. But Halfpenny's take? Modest in the extreme: "There's always room for improvement".

Wilkinson is currently helping Halfpenny along the path as he comes to terms with his post-playing existence. If ever there is a player who the retirement-aligned phrase 'hangs up his boots' does not refer to, it is Wilkinson.

"I still kick a hell of a lot. I do a week's coaching in Toulon every month and I adore it. I love working with guys one-on-one. I help people from A to B and how to perceive setbacks and find out the best things in others and themselves and also how to free their mindset. The mental, physical and team side of living life is everything I am interested in. We are a physical, mentally-functioning emotional or spiritual being and we work best as a team. There is no limit to any of those."

This mentoring role is heavily influenced by his own previous confidants: kicking coach Dave Alred and trainer Steve Black. Both were coaches focusing on the individual but held official capacities. Alred had a role in Sir Clive Woodward's World Cup-winning backroom staff while Black was used by the British & Irish Lions in 2001 and is now at Queen's Park Rangers and also working with Danny Cipriani.

There were suggestions Wilkinson would be part of the England set-up for the forthcoming World Cup but he has since scotched those ideas. His involvement with England is purely on a coincidental basis as he lives just around the corner from their headquarters at Pennyhill Park. "I spend too much time at the gym" is his assessment of any perceived involvement with the national side.

But though he is pained to distance himself from any official capacity with England, he still keeps a watchful eye on the incumbents at fly-half. He admires individual talent. George Ford is England's current first-choice No.10 and Wilkinson believes his "consistency is growing in a cut-throat environment". But even that improvement comes with the caveat that Ford needs "room to grow".

The same is said of Henry Slade. Wilkinson is "really impressed by him" but he is quick to highlight the importance of the young Exeter Chief learning to handle pressure.

"The more interest that comes from the media, the more pressure falls on the players. You would like it not to be the case but that's what happens - you become aware of people talking about you then you start thinking 'people are talking about me because of this and that'. That extra pressure is a challenge. If he can keep on coming through that, he will prove more and more people right about what they are saying. The pressure can also accelerate the process. He's young and needs his space."

Stuart Lancaster will no doubt be considering if and how he can use Wilkinson during the World Cup, he is after all his very own exceptional circumstance, but for Saturday, Wilkinson will not be thinking of England. His focus will be on Halfpenny and Toulon.

They are going for an unprecedented third title on the bounce, an as yet unscaled peak. But it is still a journey along a path. Such was the pressure Wilkinson put on himself during his career, success was hard to enjoy. But Saturday may offer a different type of satisfaction for Wilkinson. If Halfpenny ends up contributing to a Toulon triumph, Wilkinson will no doubt feel a pang of paternal pride. It is the next stage on his pathway.

"As a one-on-one coach it doesn't matter if that person is in the team. The sole job is to make sure they are getting better every day, feeling more in control and more confident. You let people know you are there for them and when they succeed, I succeed. It goes way beyond just picking up a cup. It's about seeing how much these guys want it and how hard they are working to get there. To feel you are the smallest part of that is amazing."