It was Steve Bates, my team-mate at Wasps and a teacher at Lord Wandsworth College, who first introduced me to Jonny Wilkinson.
‘I’ve got this kid at the school,’ he said to me at training one evening. ‘He’s very talented. More than that, though, he has the most extraordinary work ethic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a youngster who puts so much into his rugby.’
When we headed to Newcastle we hatched a plot to bring the Boy Wonder to the club the moment the time was right. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Jonny had already hatched a plot of his own. A plot rather grander than the one we had concocted. By the age of seven, he had decided on international rugby as his destination in life and right from the start, the extra mile was not nearly far enough for Jonny. He preferred the extra marathon, the extra circumnavigation of the globe.
By the time the moment came to point him towards Newcastle that fanatical, almost maniacal approach to training and preparation was so ingrained in him that we would not have been able to lighten his self-imposed load even had we felt it necessary.
It was a new one on me, this obsessive streak. There would be occasions, a little later in his career, when I was tempted to wonder if he was driving himself much too hard – whether, in his case, the fine distinction between genius and madness was becoming dangerously blurred.
But when he first arrived, the intensity of his attitude seemed like a 24-carat positive, and anyway, who of us can state with complete certainty where another individual should draw his parameters?
When he joined us it was on a one-year contract that would earn him the princely sum of £12,000 – a more than generous offer, we felt, for someone fresh out of the playground. We put him up in a house in Newcastle’s West End. It was not the most salubrious part of town by a very long chalk; in the fullness of time, when Jonny found himself in a more sought-after property on the golf course at Slaley Hall, he must have felt relieved to be more at risk from a mistimed three-iron than a stray brick. Still, we all have to start somewhere.
We need not have worried about him struggling to settle in the absence of home comforts and familiar faces: Steve Black saw to that. Blackie was a real find for all of us, but in Jonny’s case he was a crucial figure, central to pretty much everything that would happen over the coming years. Blackie was a born optimist who knew how to boost the confidence of those in his orbit. He was the antidote to the world according to Jonny – an oasis in a desert of torment.
What did he find when he first started working with Jonny? A fixation with being the best that he had not previously encountered in any area of sport.
In order to stop yourself going barmy, you have to acknowledge that while you’re always aiming to play a fault-free game, and that while just occasionally you might go somewhere close with your kicking or your passing or your tackling, there will inevitably be something you might have done better, if only marginally.
Jonny found that sense of balance elusive, I think. He was always at risk of becoming consumed by the pursuit, of driving himself deep into a place where he was attempting to achieve the unachievable. Blackie might have been taken aback by his intensity at first, but he made it his job to connect with him, encourage him and, in a way, protect him from himself.
Jonny’s career statistics – tournaments won, points scored, tackles completed, contributions made – may have rugby’s mathematicians salivating, but I prefer to see his career through the prism of commitment, determination and self-sacrifice. Those qualities are the product of a beating heart, not a machine. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody push themselves to the limit in pursuit of a set of objectives, both personal and team-wise, in the way he did.
If he was not the most naturally blessed player who ever appeared at No. 10, has anyone ever squeezed more from their reserve of talent? He showed a fidelity to his work that went beyond the call of duty. Way beyond, to the point where it became obsessive. Correction, it went well past obsessive. He’d be the first to admit it. For him and his closest allies, managing that obsession and ensuring that it didn’t become wholly destructive was hard work. In the end, though, he emerged with an awful lot of the rewards he deserved.
I don’t know the answer to this, and I don’t suppose Jonny does either, but what would have been his response if, when he was ten years old, someone had told him: ‘This is what it will look like when it finishes – these winner’s medals, the World Cup final drop goal, the late re-flourishing in France. And the price you’ll have to pay for it is going to be this big [in terms of injuries]. What do you say?’
My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that he would have replied: ‘Yes, the price tag is big. Terribly big. But I’ll still pay it.’