Jonny Wilkinson chats to Sky Sports about playing on, heading to America and a future in coaching.
By Chris Burton
Last Updated: 02/12/13 11:18am
"Growing up has a natural order to it", so says Jonny Wilkinson during a discussion about what the future holds for one of the most iconic figures to emerge from English sporting circles in the past decade.
Reading between those lines, and taking into account the mental and physical battering he has endured throughout the most distinguished of playing careers, you might get the impression that, at the age of 34, the No 10 jersey is ready to being hung on the peg for the last time.
It is, however, while speaking with a man whose life changed immeasurably 10 years ago with one swing of his right boot that you get the feeling the curtain may never come down for a man who continues to eat, sleep and breathe rugby.
It is that all-encompassing, almost obsessive compulsive, mentality that has taken Wilkinson to the very top of his chosen profession - to World Cup finals, 91 caps for his country, close to 1,200 international points, major individual accolades, Heineken Cup triumphs and a standing as a professional performer who transcends the sport in which he competes.
There does not appear to be any 'off switch' when it comes to Wilkinson, and he would not have it any other way - after all, he has dedicated his life to being the best. Countless hours have been spent on wind-swept and rain-sodden playing fields across the globe in desperate search of that one per cent that offers him the much-fabled 'edge' and carries him above his rivals.
He is still going through those same motions now. It has become habit. The fix to an addiction which gripped him many years ago and has offered unimaginable highs and gut-wrenching lows.
"We play a game on the Saturday," Wilkinson tells Sky Sports during an event to promote UK coaching as part of Gillette's Great Start program. "I am wrecked on the Sunday and then Monday morning I find myself walking out onto the field with a bag of balls on my back and thinking, 'What am I doing, I never even decided to do this, I have just suddenly found myself here'. It's almost subconsciously I just want to keep moving, I want to keep getting better and I want to keep doing it."
This penalty-kicking, try-saving, tackle-making machine of a man is showing no sign of slowing down and intends to squeeze every last drop out of an adventure that has taken him from Newcastle to Toulon with some rather memorable cameo appearances made at Twickenham, Sydney and Dublin along the way.
"That's why that voice is so strong at the moment," he says. "Toulon - this place, these people, this atmosphere, this team, this ambition - it's everything and to have that opportunity is amazing. For me to have it at this stage of my career, is something that I don't want to short change, I want to make the most of it and make sure I give everything I can to try and make it a success."
Wilkinson is, however, starting to 'blur the lines', as he puts it, when it comes to the playing and coaching worlds. The desire to play, and to play at the top level, burns as bright as ever, but there is a realisation that he - even Jonny Wilkinson - cannot go on forever.
When that day comes, walking away is not an option. Time will be taken to come to terms with the fact that no longer will he be putting himself in the firing line every week, but the transition from frontline to touchline will be made as seamlessly as possible.
"I think taking time away is hugely important, doing something different is hugely important," he says.
"I need to consciously fully grasp the fact that I'm no longer playing at that point and when I'm stood on the sideline I'm not itching to get on. But, at the same time, I think the time away needs to serve as a beginning of the research angle and the learning process.
"When I started at Newcastle Falcons at 18, it took me God knows how long to just get a grip of what other guys were doing and what the game was about. Thinking just because you've played the game means you can become a coach is probably the biggest mistake there is.
"Coaching isn't about playing rugby, it isn't about taking what you did when you were playing rugby and showing other people how to do it, coaching is about support, man-management, it's about language, it's about all kinds of things - structuring sessions through to understanding acquisition of skills, mental fatigue, it's about understanding personalities, everything. I think that is going to take time.
"That journey for me has started but it hasn't really started because when it's all you do, and you take the responsibility for someone else, what they do on the weekend becomes your responsibility. That's a fair amount to take on and the last thing I want to do is let someone down. I really need to get to grips with what that means for me, being a coach."
It is a safe bet that Wilkinson will throw himself head-first into that challenge when it becomes his day job, rather than his bit on the side, and he believes his game - even at this late stage - may have benefitted from the fact that he is already taking small steps down that particular path.
"I've been doing a bit of coaching at the moment, individually with the younger guys or any guys that have asked me. I've started to move along that road already, but it's helped my play as well," he says.
"It's offering me the opportunity to think about things without directly thinking about them for myself. Often when I kick, I kick on my own. I used to hate kicking with other people because I didn't like the invariables - I wanted to know I do this many and I wanted an almost sterile environment for doing my own stuff. But now I'm constantly working alongside other guys, I'm learning from watching them and learning from talking to them as well as trying to help them along.
"Those two paths have definitely crossed a while ago and it's not a case yet, but it's one I can see fairly soon when the coaching path becomes the stronger one, for sure. I think that's the time to think about moving on. But for the moment, we are all helping each other along quite nicely."
But what of this 'break'? Where does he go? What does he do? How do you fill the void when the one thing you have spent your entire adult life doing is taken away?
The NFL has been mooted in the past, with it no surprise to learn that one of the most deadly dead-ball kickers in the rugby world has attracted admiring glances from the giants of gridiron. Such a switch would appear to still make sense - forming part of a special team on an American Football roster would place considerably less strain on his body than continuing at Toulon.
Wilkinson admits there is an appeal there, and that it is something he has considered in the past, but feels any time he spends working in the States will purely be fact-finding led - as he seeks the input of other professionals who may be able to offer him that edge again. Nothing ever changes.
He says: "I have thought about that a little bit and what else I might do. But I'm definitely going to keep an eye on it (rugby). I will be kicking balls about, I'll be passing balls around, looking at the game and thinking about the game, for sure. But there are no immediate plans to do anything crazy different, apart from take a break. I've never really had a break, despite having three-and-a-half-four-years of very interrupted rugby through injury. I've never had that break that people have when you stop playing. That's something I've really got to understand, life without that and what that's like.
"I have thought about the NFL a bit and would love to go over to America and learn from those guys a little bit and mess around a bit and see what that's like. But, for me, when I give up rugby it will probably be because I'm too tired to do anything.
"I need to see the transition as one door closing and a very attractive one opening. Everyone worries about how are you going to find a substitute, how are you going to replace all of those feelings that are pretty unique to professional team sport at a high level, but that will always be difficult. At the same time, it's about adapting and changing with who you are.
"You have to understand that while playing rugby team sport is fabulous - there is nothing better than it, in my opinion - but at the age of 42 it's not quite the same. Growing up has a natural order to it and you are pulled in certain directions to what you want to do.
"I think that's the key, listening to your body. For me, at 34, I'm getting some voices in my ear about coaching, my head is telling me some strong words about that, and I'm getting some strong words about playing and trying to get better all the time.
"I'm starting to get a few as well that it would be nice at the end of my career to go and have a little break, reassess and spend a bit of time with people that I haven't spent that much time with. I'm just trying to listen out to get the right message. At the moment it's a strong one in terms of playing and getting better, but there are some interesting ones coming in as well that I'm certainly going to explore at the right time."
So, with no 'crazy different' decision set to be taken, how does Wilkinson go about ensuring that the next door he enters leads to further success? He is not a man to do things by half and will demand of himself that he is the best coach he can be, that his methods and advice are helpful in the development of the stars of tomorrow.
Fortunately for him, he has worked with some rather special coaches in his time - some of the finest tactical brains ever to pick up a clipboard and some who have taken rugby to a new level with their willingness to embrace the technologies of an ever-evolving world.
"I have worked with some fantastic people," says Wilkinson. "With Blacky and Dave Alred, guys who have been throughout my career the guys I have leant on - Dave as regards to skills and the mental preparation in training and getting the best out of practice and Blacky with regard to just the holistic sense of performance, motivational, psychological, everything. I have been massively, massively privileged to have that opportunity and it's been amazing.
"Now, a lot of my understanding will come from these great experiences. My experience as well of playing alongside some great people, understanding what they need, understanding the person himself, and that's the difference when you talk about these guys like Dave Alred and Steve Black, they go to that level when it's not just about a number, it's not just about the number on the guy's back or what people tell you about them - it's about finding out yourself and getting to know the guy deeper than he kicks with his right foot and he prefers to do this, he weighs this much and can run 100m in this time, but actually get to know what drives him and what he needs.
"When he says he feels okay, what does that actually mean? Does it mean he feels terrible? Understand and learn how to get the best, and that for me is the key - you are dealing with individuals. Blacky and Dave, Blacky especially, spend so much time bespoking everything to the individuals and understanding that we are all different even if we play the same position, even if we look the same. We are all completely different because of how we're structured and how we're wired mentally and physically and also how we see the game. There is a lot there that I would love to take on. The thing that these guys have shown me is that your job is never done, you can get better by going off and researching and looking a bit further for where the next game is."
He added: "A great coach, what he does is that he allows players to shoot as high as they can possibly get whilst bringing the floor up underneath them, so they are jumping higher to the marks and when you climb higher and higher up the scale it doesn't necessarily mean that you've got further to fall when it possibly goes slightly wrong. That's what great coaching is, it's about great support, it's about information.
"The best guys can do it all - they can provide the how to's as well as just being good people, good supporting people and getting to know people and giving these people a chance to feel great about themselves. You provide information which gives players power to do their job well, but then you support them which gives them confidence in themselves and their ability to go out there are shoot for 10 out of 10, rather than going out without the support and thinking they will try and hang in there at seven or eight without making any mistakes."
Wilkinson has very much been a 10 throughout his playing career - in more ways than one - and it is safe to assume that he will settle for nothing less than hitting that mark again when the day comes to open a new chapter in one of the most intriguing sporting tales ever told.