The myth of rugby’s Jonny Wilkinson

February 23, 2010

A rugby writer, with tongue only half in cheek, once said it was possible to gauge an Englishman’s entire outlook on life by ascertaining whether he was a Stuart Barnes or a Rob Andrew fan in the years between 1985 and 1993.

Barnes, a cavalier among flyhalves who passionately embraced the running game, played only a handful of matches for the national team. Andrew, an accomplished all-rounder but with a game based increasingly on kicking, became an England institution.

Predictably, perhaps, Andrew is now a pillar of the rugby establishment in his role as England elite director of rugby.

Barnes is a consistently entertaining and perceptive television commentator and writer.

In his latter role, Barnes stated in a newspaper column at the weekend what has long been obvious to many non-Englishmen, whatever their overall world view may be.

Joining the debate about the future of Jonny Wilkinson in the current England setup, Barnes said the passage of time had shown Wilkinson to be not so different from his 2003 World Cup winning colleagues Mike Tindall and Ben Cohen.

They all, said Barnes, were mightily effective for their country but exposed once outside coach Clive Woodward’s environment.

“Nothing has gone wrong with Wilkinson,” he wrote. “He is almost as good as ever but he was not the great player many wanted him to be. England might have won a World Cup without him.”

Heretical as Barnes’s views might be to those who revere Wilkinson and the gilded memories of 2003, they strike a chord among others who have long wondered what all the fuss was about.

As part of a great team, and the England side of 2003 were a great team, Wilkinson’s place-kicking accuracy was feared throughout the rugby world. He was a massive tackler and an effective link between Rob Dawson and Will Greenwood.

And then? Undoubtedly efficient but little more. Sceptics always struggled to recognise the wonderboy he became in the popular imagination.

In the year before the World Cup, England defeated New Zealand at Twickenham with Wilkinson playing a prominent role.

During the second half, with his forwards taking a hammering, All Blacks replacement flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens was a conspicuously more creative player even though constantly on the back foot.

Mehtrens at that late stage of his career was not even the All Blacks first choice, coming on as a second half replacement for the mercurial but flawed Carlos Spencer. And Mehrtens, good as he was, was not among history’s elite.

Jackie Kyle, Cliff Morgan, Barry John, Mark Ella were wonderful flyhalves, able to shape, guide and dominate a game.

The present All Blacks incumbent Dan Carter is another and Danny Cipriani, unwanted and apparently not rated by the present England management, could join them although his present disillusionment is such that he has opted to seek his immediate fortune in Australia.

At the very least, Wilkinson was fortunate to be around when England fielded the best pack they have assembled.

During the 1990s, Craig Chalmers represented Scotland with distinction as the national team’s fortunes waned. How would Wilkinson have fared north of the border without the luxury of a dominant pack and instant decision makers inside and outside him?

Conversely, how might Chalmers have performed in an England shirt?

Chris Paterson, who became the first Scot to play 100 internationals when he took the field against Wales this season, is a phenomenal goal kicker, more accurate and consistent even than Wilkinson and a gifted, committed all-round footballer.

Borders’ fans consider it a travesty that Paterson has never been able to command a consistent position in the Scots side, let alone win an extended trial at flyhalf where they believe he could have been even better than John Rutherford and Gregor Townsend.

Time has passed Paterson by. Meanwhile, the myth of Wilkinson continues apace, so much so that some pundits are now calling for his head simply because he is not the player he never was.

PHOTO: England’s Jonny Wilkinson scores against Italy during their Six Nations match in Rome Feb. 14, 2010. REUTERS/Max Rossi

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Wilkinson would be the first to agree with this post. He sees himself entirely as a small cog in the great machine and if if shuffling the ball on without any great excitement and kicking goals it helps the team win he will continue to do it until no longer asked.
It’s certainly true that he is not among the greats in terms of individual skill and flambouyant breaks but in terms of his impact on big games, few can stand alongside him.
His very presence and the liklihood that he would punish any misdemeanour with three points forced opposition teams into playing differently against England. They couldn’t risk going offside so suddenly Will Greenwood had space to work with. A moment’s hesitation by the opposition back row and Back, Dallaglio or Hill had snaffled posession.
I couldn’t agree more that it was madness for for Scotland to Paterson. Much as everyone loves tries, the sad reality of modern rugby is that games are won and lost by the accuracy of the goalkickers. Wilkinson delivered on that score again and again, even under the greatest of pressures. Stuart Barnes is great to read but, like many of us, the older he gets, the better he was.

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