They go together like Ant and Dec, Morecambe and Wise, Black and Decker, Fortnum and Mason, fish and chips.
Jonny Wilkinson, probably the finest No 10 ever witnessed on a rugby field, and his Geordie mentor Steve Black.
Blood brothers, maybe father and son.
Both linked once again last evening as joint winners of the Sports Personality award on a glittering night of black tie and bibs under the chandeliers of the Newcastle Civic Centre.
Except that they weren’t actually together at Sport Newcastle’s annual bash for the good and the great.
Blackie was there to take the applause but Jonny was thousands of miles away holed up in Thailand.
Having been in the Far East on business, his wife Shelley took ill, and instead of flying back for his Geordie night and his third Sports Personality award to go with his 2002 and 2004 gongs, Wilkinson was at her bedside.
However, father Phil, mother Philippa and brother Mark, all of whom still live on Tyneside, were in the audience representing the Wilkinson dynasty.
The night was a fitting finale to the completion of Blackie’s partnership with Wilko as coach and mentor with player.
They will inevitably work on together in several projects, but Jonny has hung his boots on a nail in the cupboard after a glittering career which saw him win the English and French championships, twice become a European champion by lifting the Heineken Cup, with it all topped off of course by his epic dropped goal that famously claimed the World Cup for England in 2003.
Both he and Black cemented their joint Newcastle awards for 2015 with massive celebrations – Jonny ended his playing career by winning the Top 14 championship and Heineken Cup with Toulon while Steve was at Wembley sitting in the QPR dug-out as they dramatically gained promotion to the Premier League by succeeding in the First Division Play Off final.
“Aye, it’s been a wonderful partnership – very, very special indeed,” Blackie told me.
“We’ve been together since Jonny came up to Newcastle as a teenager in 1997. I flew over to Toulon regularly during his years in France, and though he’s stopped playing now we have so many other projects we’re working on at the moment.
“We’re like brothers, or a young father and son! The bond will never be broken.”
Blackie wasn’t there when skipper Wilkinson raised the Heineken Cup aloft with Toulon in Cardiff – he was at Wembley supporting Joey Barton et al – but, soccer season over, Steve made it to Paris for the Top 14 finale.
“It was the very last match of Jonny’s illustrious career, but his hunger, his desire, and his chase for perfection was still burning brightly inside him,” revealed Black. “He knew he wouldn’t play another game of rugby but it wasn’t a matter of ‘high fives andlet’s go.’ We still went through his meticulous preparation on match morning. We still addressed the usual trigger points of physical preparation, management of his energy levels etc etc.
“Jonny is pretty well unique in that he has retained his hunger, his relentless sky-high level, throughout a long career. That’s why he has a special place in sport’s hall of fame never mind just rugby.
“That is how he became England, European and World Player of the Year and BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He also won France’s equivalent award playing for Toulon. I don’t think many English sportsmen have done that!”
How did the highly personal Black-Wilkinson partnership materialise at Newcastle Falcons? It began upon the birth of professional rugby when a bright teenage prospect headed north to join his former school teacher Steve Bates, then a coach at Kingston Park.
His arrival went mostly unnoticed as Sir John Hall imported some of the world’s greatest names, but his impact in such exalted company was still immediate. “Naturally I was coaching the whole squad,” recalled Steve, “but despite the array of talent Jonny still stood out because of his intensity, his brightness, talent, and willingness to work and learn.
“My coaching style was such that I always worked closely with individuals and so it developed with Jonny. I worked on body, mind, heart, and spirit and that seemed to appeal to him.
“I had mentored other young sportsmen like Lee Clark and Steve Watson at Newcastle United and my relationship with Jonny started out in the same way.”
Ironically, perhaps appropriately, Black was presented with the Sport Newcastle Coach of the Year award in the same Civic Centre venue many moons ago when Wilkinson was named as one of their Rising Stars.
While Wilkinson went on to lift the championship and the Tetley’s Bitter Cup twice at Twickenham with the Falcons, he seemed haunted by injuries after the World Cup triumph of 2003, whereas at Toulon a battered body appeared to hold up well. How come?
“Jonny never suffered muscular injuries,” explained Blackie.
“His trouble was that as the bravest of players he endured a lot of car crashes. When you are around 13st and have a 20st Tongan hitting you side-on you suffer. Your body isn’t made to absorb that sort of punishment.
“The difference when he went to Toulon is that they had the best pack in the world and it gave Jonny a platform to sit behind it and do his most telling work. He wasn’t less brave, he just didn’t have to go round putting out fires all the time.
“Jonny was, in my opinion, the greatest tackling No 10 who ever lived, but that wasn’t needed at Toulon.
“He was a god out there. He was revered. The opposition players used to come up to him before games and ask for his autograph! Imagine that.
“Jonny was made captain because of his huge influence. A captain in rugby is much more influential than in football and he was the best.
“He spoke fluent French in the dressing-room and in Press interviews. The fans loved that because it was like he was one of them.
“I remember him being asked to speak about quantum physics at a seminar in Paris after we had written a book speaking of it. He shared a stage with two Nobel Prize winners and held his own, delivering his speech in perfect French. I was so proud of him.
“Jonny embraced the culture and the language. He immersed himself in everything.”
So where does the bearded Geordie rate Wilkinson in the history of world rugby?
“Well, I was on Graham Henry’s coaching panel with Wales and the Lions,” replied Blackie.
“Graham was a magnificent coach who won the World Cup with the All Blacks in 2011, so he has seen and worked with legendary stars and he told me that if he had to pick a side to win a game Wilkinson would be his No 10.
“When England reached the World Cup final in 2007 I was staying with Graham and the All Blacks in Toulouse, though I spoke to Jonny every day.
“England were hammered in an early game 36-0 by South Africa but incredibly went on to play them in the final. I believe Wilkinson’s greatest influence was on that team rather than the 2003 side.
“He had been out injured, he hadn’t played for a while, missing the debacle against the Springboks, yet he drove them to the final. Graham Henry said England had no right to be in the final but Jonny got them there.
“I’ve worked with some of the greatest No 10s like Rob Andrew and Neil Jenkins, but I rate Jonny the best ever.
“I know I’m biased and I know that Barry John would rightly receive great support in any pub argument but I have to go with Jonny.
“Basketball coach John Wooden, who was voted the greatest coach who ever lived, said competitive greatness was being the best when the best was needed. Well no one did that better than Jonny Wilkinson.”
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