English rugby's golden boy, Jonny Wilkinson, speaks for the first time about the agonising decision of international retirement, the influences on his career and what the future holds
By Peter Fraser - Follow me on Twitter @SkySportsPeteF. Last Updated: 27/12/11 6:29pm
Jonny Wilkinson: 'I was sat at home, trying to work out what was happening in my life'
In the early autumn of 2010, Jonny Wilkinson sat at his home in Southern France and knew something did not feel right. In the company of his partner, mother and father, arguably one of the greatest players in rugby's history was beginning to wrestle with thoughts of international retirement.
The professional career of England's iconic fly-half had since it began in the late 1990s been blighted by almost relentlessly cruel injuries, but it was also driven by the constant pursuit of perfection and was crowned by that drop-goal against Australia in the 2003 World Cup final. However, just over one year ago, the unflinchingly-committed Wilkinson was beginning to realise the environment in which he had existed was changing around him.
On the back of promising autumn internationals in 2009, he had scored 50 points at the 2010 Six Nations. But England only finished third in the competition and Wilkinson then had to watch from the bench as successor-in-waiting Toby Flood helped to draw a two-Test series against Australia in Perth and Sydney. Wilkinson started to consider whether his own ambitions could still coexist with the best interests of his nation's team.
The now-32-year-old's will to win meant he buried the doubts in the latter months of 2010, but it was only temporary. The former Newcastle star earlier this December announced he was calling it a day with England in order to concentrate on his commitments at club level with Toulon.
"There is no step down. It is only a step up. The step forward is to get better. I am so, so excited about that and so the intensity is not going anywhere."
Jonny Wilkinson Quotes of the week
International retirement sadly signified that 13 years, 91 caps and 1,246 points were concluded by the notorious debacle of England's 2011 World Cup campaign. It was far from a fitting finale, but it was not a knee-jerk reaction.
"After the 2009 season, I came back and did the autumn internationals and felt fabulous," said a candid Wilkinson in an exclusive interview with skysports.com as he reflected on the tough decision of his retirement for the first time in the public domain.
"We lost to Australia and New Zealand, but we beat Argentina. They were good games. I just felt so good. After all the injuries, I felt brilliant. That was probably the last time I felt those conditions were there - it just happened to work. But in the 2010 Six Nations, things seemed to turn around and it was the first time I had ever been hugely confused about everything. I couldn't work out why or how and it didn't make sense to me.
"Followed by the tour of Australia, where Toby did very well, I was asking myself the question. That is the moment I remember. I was sat at home in France with my other half and my mum and dad before the autumn internationals in 2010, trying to work out what was happening in my life and trying to work out why rugby was suddenly not feeling simple anymore.
"The decision was clear to me that I really felt I had more to do and to prove. (But) after the 2011 World Cup, there was no moment. It gradually built up and there were times when I felt it was probably right. Other times, when I would come back from a day of training with Toulon, I would think, 'There is no way I can give up the opportunity to do this'. But then slowly and surely as it wore on, the right and more honest decision came out. There was also a danger of getting selfish about it and trying to prove something to myself instead of saying, 'What is going to help England go forward so that they can celebrate again?'."
Wilkinson will fly back to England for Christmas after Toulon's match against Lyon on Friday night and he will spend the time with his family before returning across The Channel on Boxing Day. It will be the first time in more than a decade he celebrates the festive period without international thoughts and an eye on the coming February's Six Nations. He will instead be concentrating on preparing for a club game at Biarritz on New Year's Eve.
"I started to realise that the last few years with England had been a combination of me searching for the best of me, as always, but also trying to understand the conditions around me in the squad," the 2007 World Cup finalist explained. "That's not what people are doing or who is there or anything like that - it is more just a feeling. Trying to fit in with it. Trying to fit in and find the best of me, and make those two things work together. That has been the whole goal. That has been everything I have put my energy towards.
"For some reason, it has now seemed to be simpler for somebody else to be doing it. That is what happens and it became evident to me. I do like to always think that I know what I can do and that I know what I am capable of. I am still capable of doing that and I am aiming to do that with Toulon and do it better and better."
World Cup winner: Wilkinson scored 1,246 points for England
Wilkinson did not go through the torment of deciding on his retirement without consulting with people who knew him both as a rugby player and as a friend.
"In that period after 2010, I spoke to people like Mike Catt, Richard Hill and Will Greenwood," he remembered. "These guys were people in rugby who I felt understood me. These guys could understand beyond what I could do on the field and look more at how I behaved, how I lived life as an individual, how intense and how somewhat irrationally I looked at things every now and again. How capable I was of getting obsessive, counter-productive and a bit destructive."To speak to those guys was important, because they had also chosen to move on after rugby. They gave me balanced arguments for looking at it both ways. Ultimately it comes down to the same thing - how you feel, what you want, whether you can make a difference to the team."
And what of England's embarrassing World Cup, which was the final curtain of Wilkinson's international career? A failure to succeed on the field combined with the headline-grabbing antics of the likes of Mike Tindall, Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi brought the squad home from New Zealand in disgrace. Manager Martin Johnson resigned and a mass shake-up of the Rugby Football Union is ongoing.
Wilkinson has preferred to avoid the direct fallout from the events of September and October and would instead like to focus on watching the potential of his country under the interim coaching of Stuart Lancaster.
"It is difficult to say, because I have not seen a lot of the stuff that has come out after the World Cup," said Wilkinson when asked if he thought some of his squad-mates did not match his personally high standards of behaviour and performance. "I don't read the papers. I have heard a few comments and heard what people have been saying. I didn't recognise at all anything there in that respect in the way people were training or giving to the cause. It was a massively concerted effort from everyone.
"I think it is the deeper part as well, that do-or-die scenario which comes with the World Cup, which I am used to. You get one every four years and it may be your only one. I have been fortunate enough to do four World Cups and each one had felt like almost the end of the world - every game, every training session. You are on borrowed time and you know you are dealing with things which will change the rest of your life and the lives of those around you. That is how you see it.
"I don't know what all the comments are (about England), but playing for your team needs to be the be all and end all. The biggest basic in rugby is to just run until you drop. It just has to supersede everything else that comes with playing rugby - whether that is sponsorship, being paid or opportunities that come elsewhere. Those things are great and add colour to life, but they come massively secondary to getting out there and making a difference to the team.
"The ability and talent that these guys have is going to come out and it is going to do wonders for the game of rugby in England. Hopefully it will be the exact opposite reaction to the one which has come out of the last World Cup."
Wilkinson: Now concentrating solely on life with Toulon
Tributes have poured in for Wilkinson since he decided to hang up his international kicking boots. The choice does not appear to have diminished his popularity and he will forever be English rugby's golden boy. Indeed, long-term sponsors Gillette are continuing their partnership, which provides an indication of his standing in the public eye.
The brand's manager, Jared Regan, said: "Jonny has achieved at the highest level and always acts with integrity. He is one of the greatest rugby players, even sportsmen, this country has ever produced and we are very proud to be associated with him on Gillette. He perfectly embodies the values we stand for and we are very excited about how we can work with Jonny as he moves into this next stage of his career."
Wilkinson has himself been deeply touched by the level of support and praise he has received from fans and media around the world. But he could be forgiven for feeling aggrieved by the manner in which his international retirement has somewhat overshadowed his ongoing career at Toulon, where he recently extended his contract until 2013. That, though, is not the case.
"It is up to people to see it how they want," said Wilkinson. "I have been blessed with some of the responses of support since I made the decision. It has blown me away. I can't begin to stress how stupidly fortunate and privileged a position it puts me in.
"In a similar vein, the way that I have been supported through my career with Newcastle and England, it is beyond belief. It is like being in a dream world. With Toulon as well, the kind of support is ludicrous."
But Wilkinson is not one to dwell on past achievements. He is looking towards the future and fulfilling his ambitions in France.
"I cannot express how serious or intense I am about this next stage of my life," he said. "There is no stepping down for me. Every game I play has to be the very best of me. As a child, I made a pact with myself that every time I took to the field, even as an eight-year-old, I felt like it was my World Cup final.
"Playing for Newcastle, every game was like playing for England. Every game, every piece of preparation, I wanted to be an England player. I said to myself, 'Every time I take to the field, it is as if I am an England player'. I wanted to be not just an England player, but the best of England and the best of the world. That is what resides with me know. In terms of future plans, I am really excited about the next chapter in my life. I was given a great start in my career having been mentored by some amazing coaches and I would love to pass on some of that experience.
"There is no step down. It is only a step up. The step forward is to get better. I am so, so excited about that and so the intensity is not going anywhere. It might just mean that I have a tiny bit more free time and no games while the boys do their stuff at the Six Nations."