When Jonny Wilkinson answers a question, it is as if he is embarking upon a great expedition. This is not a quick trip to the corner shop. This is an epic, troubled journey, traversing ravines made icy by shadow, fording raging rivers and climbing soaring peaks. Sometimes, it feels as if his attempts to get back home are a struggle that will never end.
Wilkinson is, quite simply, the most compelling sportsman in the world. Or the most compelling ex-sportsman. On the eve of the first World Cup for 20 years that he has not graced, the man who was for so long England’s talisman and comfort is trying to turn away from the things that once defined him and search for a new life.
The search is taking a toll. When he talks about it, Wilkinson travels from nought to intense in five seconds flat. That’s his character. There is something sparse about him. He can be bleak. He is honest, too. Always honest. Honest in the kind of unsparing way that shuns everyday self-deception and brings truths, sometimes uncomfortable truths, spilling out.
Take, for instance, the insecure, egocentric little part of you that hopes a team, or a firm, or a newspaper, won’t be quite as good or quite as loved once you’ve left it. Wilkinson acknowledges that in himself as he struggles to come to terms with the idea that his last club side, Toulon, are better without him.
Take, too, the vainglorious part of you that secretly wants to leverage past achievements to get a table at a restaurant or a nod from someone you admire. Wilkinson acknowledges that in himself as he seeks to break from his identity of being a famous rugby player.
Some people mock him for the introspection. They have done for some time. ‘Are you worried you might turn into a basket case?’ a journalist asked him during the 2003 World Cup that he won for England with that last-gasp drop goal against Australia in Sydney. Maybe that’s because Wilkinson’s penchant for self-analysis makes people feel uncomfortable.
Maybe it’s just because he’s so smart that many find it hard to grasp what he’s articulating. Or perhaps it is just that we have grown so used to cliché and the avowed absence of doubt in our sportsmen and women that it is hard to comprehend one who is, openly, riven by vulnerability and anguish.
Wilkinson worked fiendishly hard as a player, pushing himself to the limit, kicking and kicking and kicking, practising and practising and practising in the pursuit of perfection. There was always an element of self-loathing in his refusal to countenance fault. Now he is applying the same work ethic and the same dark suspicion of himself into attempting to make a new life.
Wilkinson, who retired from competitive rugby in 2014, holds the World Cup records for most points scored, most penalties converted and most drop goals kicked. He is the only man to have scored in two World Cup finals. But that was then and this is now. Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away but those who revered him keep trying to drag him back.
‘I find it difficult being honoured with something when I don’t see that I have earned it, or how I could have earned it,’ says Wilkinson. ‘When you finish playing rugby, it becomes a lot more evident when people are saying something good about you even though you are no longer in that shirt. That rugby life becomes a lifetime ago. You think, “Why are people talking about me in that way?”
‘The mirror is a great one for showing your own errors. You see through yourself, don’t you, and you see yourself for all your little faults. And I have always found it hard matching those up against the fact that people paint you in such a way that is amazingly supportive.
‘You can’t escape the mirror. That’s helping me to understand the difference between what you look like and who you are. When I look in the mirror, at the moment, I see confusion because I know I am breaking apart, but I am not fully broken apart.
‘I feel like I am breaking apart in terms of . . . in the early part of my career . . . if you said to me, “Describe yourself”, I would have said, “I’m a rugby player, I love training hard, tackling, I want to be this, I want to be that, I play for England”, and all that stuff.
‘In the middle of my life, I would have said, “I’m a rugby player”, but also I would have spoken a bit more about family and life. But now, “Who are you?” is turning into . . . I wouldn’t say, “I’m an ex-rugby player or I’m this”. I’m basically . . . I don’t know. That’s the confusion.
‘I feel like I’m breaking apart in that I am going towards somewhere where my answer will be massively in the spiritual and philosophical, but it’s not there yet. All I know is that I don’t feel any worth in saying, “I was a rugby player and I played 18 years as a professional and I played there and I won this”.
‘It’s not the fact that I couldn’t care less. It’s just that I see it as the same now as getting up and going out for lunch. That’s what I’m feeling now as I’m breaking apart.
‘I’m feeling that life is going on and my appearance has been associated with my historical stuff and that’s breaking apart. That’s what I feel and that’s the confusion I see. Recognising myself is becoming more and more difficult but I see that in a positive way.’
Wilkinson is haunted by the idea that he might in any way be in thrall to his own ego. He is trying to obliterate his ego. Several times, he repeats his fear that he is somehow fraudulent. It is a recurring theme, the feeling that he is undeserving of the praise lavished on him.
‘Why have people been so kind to me and what is this feeling I get about this fraudulent side?’ he says. ‘Why are they supporting me? People say, “Oh, he works so hard”, when I am doing what I love. People say, “Oh, he’s modest”, when it’s me just saying what I feel about me.’
He wants to move on and yet his status as one of the greatest players there has ever been means that, as the World Cup approaches, his profile is high again. Last week, he was the main focus of a brilliant new documentary, Building Jerusalem, about England and the 2003 World Cup that was screened at cinemas across the country.
He is an analyst for ITV, too. He will be all over our screens for the duration of this tournament. His work perpetuates his fame but he wants to retreat from it. He has a horror of making the next step in his life ‘the easy route’. When he thinks of what he might become, he does not always like what he sees.
‘The easy route for me is a materialistic route,’ says Wilkinson. ‘It’s the way everyone goes. It’s, “How can I leverage what I have been through in order to go somewhere?” This is the battle everyone faces.
‘You have got one side of you that is aware of that side of things, that deeper, more permanent thing. You have got the other side which is constantly nagging at you to say, “Wouldn’t that be great, wouldn’t that be cool if we could get that or if these guys knew my name?”. This is what everyone faces.
‘I feel I have an opportunity now to really understand something and I don’t want to miss it. I am looking for that deeper level. My growth towards that . . . that’s the growth I am interested in. It’s in the internal versus the external.
‘The external is amazing for me. I am so lucky and I want to honour that by making sure that I use it. Helping and supporting other people is the internal for me. That’s maybe the more lasting thing. In that legacy of giving back, that’s the growth.’
Sometimes, it is hard to follow Wilkinson. Sometimes, you have to seek clarification. Sometimes, his mind seems to be whirring like the photojournalist’s in Apocalypse Now. When the thing that has defined a man for most of his life comes to an end, what are you going to land on?
‘I become more and more confused by appearance when I look in the mirror,’ says Wilkinson, 36, ‘because I am starting less and less to buy into it. I start to see changes but not just changes as I am getting older. Changes that are taking me further away from the idea that I am my appearance or my body. I see it as a shell.’
A few months ago, he said retirement had made him feel ‘less of a man’ but his attitude has already changed. He has reached a stage where he identifies the agonising four-year period between the 2003 and 2007 World Cups when he was derailed by a succession of injuries as the key to his ability to survive the end of his rugby career.
‘Before I got my injuries,’ says Wilkinson, ‘I was so tied up with who I was and how important I felt I was. Deep down, I was attached to winning the World Cup. I was attached to being an England player.
‘That route was getting worse. The injuries were a pointer to saying, “Look, you are going to struggle very, very badly with the end of your career. To the point where, life-wise, enjoyment-wise, you probably won’t come back from it.”
‘I went through depression in the four years I was injured. I was forced to go through it and when I came out, I still had this opportunity to play rugby again. What happened in that period was obvious because you are in the presence of a hugely greater intelligence that is looking at you and being like, “This is what you need”.’
Wilkinson’s search for happiness after his career, his embrace of Buddhism, quantum physics and existentialism, can sometimes seem bewildering in its eclecticism. Deep thinkers can often unsettle people, particularly in the sporting world. That’s why people sometimes snigger at Wilkinson behind his back. That’s why that journalist called him a basket case.
‘When I look back on my career,’ says Wilkinson, ‘it’s not a case of saying, “What was the best thing to come out of your career, was it winning the World Cup, was it winning the European Cup or was it finishing by winning the Top 14 or was it being named this or doing this?” No, that’s nothing.
‘The best thing about my career in terms of me as a person was being injured for four years and going through what I went through in terms of mental issues. The best thing about my rugby career is that it has allowed me to be in a position where I feel that my mind has been opened and I have been supported towards being able to attack life on a privileged level.
‘I don’t mean that in terms of having financial security and options available for working. I mean it in terms of being able to delve deeper into this search for happiness that is ultimately in giving to others.
‘If you carry on going, “Oh no one cares about me, I am no longer a rugby player”, you will get another lesson and it will be harder to deal with and then you will have to get the professional help and so on.
‘On my path, it is always coming towards this existential drive of finding out the real answer behind “What’s going to last?”. Because my career was 18 years. In fact, it was from the age of four, so it was 31 years. It was 31 years of just non-stop obsession about one thing and then on a certain day it goes “Zoop” and then you go, “What the hell now?” ’
Source: Daily Mail