"Football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that."
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My Autobiography, Jonny Wilkinson, London, Headline, 2011. ISBN 978 0 7553 1339 6If one were asked to choose a word to sum up Jonny Wilkinson, obsessive would have to be high on the list. It is a word used frequently in the book. After missing 6 of 7 kicks as a schoolboy, his reaction is: “But I also have a solution – be obsessive about making sure this doesn’t happen again. In other words, go out and kick some more balls. So the next morning, I’m out there kicking, trying to drive the memories of yesterday from my mind”. He further states, “my obsessive switch has been flicked”. Even as a schoolboy he would regularly throw up in the hedge before the game. Yet for him “my biggest asset will always be my obsessive side, the fact that cannot stop looking for more work to do out there”.
Even when he was living the dream, the pressure was intolerable. He can enjoy it only when it is over: “The brief aftermath in the changing room when you’ve won feels good. The pressure of the week is gone, it’s been a good day and now I can just sit here and … embrace it. I don’t need to worry about the next game. For a few hours, I don’t need to worry about anything”.
Pressure and obsession stay with him throughout his career. During his last World Cup, he reflects “When I think back to that young lad playing mini rugby at Farnham, vomiting in the hedge through nerves, crying before games because he couldn’t bear the thought of not getting it right, I wonder seriously how much has changed. I also truly wonder how the hell I ended up where I am now. Right through to the end of that last World Cup game, I still couldn’t bear the thought of not being perfect”.
The book takes us through Wilkinson’s career – becoming a professional Rugby player, deciding to play in France, England debut and his struggles to fit in, four World Cups. It is written with an honesty and with insights that are almost unheard of in a sports autobiography. Owen Slot, the writer, told me how much time he had spent with Jonny getting material from him for the book. It was towards 10 times the number of hours I had spent with the two people whose autobiographies I had written – another example of Wilkinson’s obsessive nature? Perhaps but the book is all the richer for it.
If you are looking for the inside story of England’s 2003 World Cup triumph or the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, you will not be disappointed.
One fascinating insight into the 2011 World Cup was Wilkinson’s explanation of his (and every place kicker’s) poor success rate. The inconsistency of the balls. There were six match balls for each game and the players got to practise with them. Typically, Wilkinson says, “In any group of balls, for instance, one might fade left, one might draw right slightly, one might go really heavily left and another three might be nice and straight”. Wilkinson got to the point of memorizing what each ball did so that he could check the number of the ball he had to kick with at any given moment of a game. His frustration came out: “I know that I am kicking brilliantly and the balls are going everywhere. ..absolute joke, it’s just a lottery now because I don’t know how far this ball is going to move”.
For me by far the most interesting aspect of the book is Jonny’s attempts to find meaning in rugby and beyond. The essence of the dilemma is expressed in the following quotes:
“My entire values system has been created around being the best rugby player in the world and doing whatever is required to get there, but away from rugby where does that leave me? Under the scrutiny of my own harsh judgement, I don’t fare too well”.
“The thing is, this is my goal. This is what I wrote down when I was ten, and those other times. But I can’t remember the last time I smiled properly and enjoyed it. I’m trying my best to embrace this amazing opportunity but I’m not even close”.
“I am now a World Cup winner. The stadium is an expression of everything I wanted. People are supporting me, cheering me, giving me their respect. But what happens afterwards? What happens when we all leave here? What happens when I wake up tomorrow?”
“The big question that we need to ask ourselves: What are we here for and what have we worked so hard to be here for?”
Later in the book there are references to his new spiritual pathway but what this consists in is never defined. I found it interesting that three of the people he speaks most highly of are Christians – Inga Tuigamala, Jason Robinson and Pat Lam. Of Inga he writes, “he’s the guy who had the smile on his face when he played. And he was different from me. He could try something on the pitch and if it didn’t go well, he could handle it”. What Jonny seems not to have grasped is that the reason Inga could smile and accept disappointments was that he knew that his significance as a person depended not on how he played but on his relationship with Jesus Christ who loved him unconditionally.
Inga’s entire values system had never been created around being the best rugby player in the world. He believed that God had given him a talent to play rugby and was able to embrace that amazing opportunity, smile and enjoy it.
I cannot recommend this book too highly for its insights into professional sport. Had it been published earlier in the year I am sure it would have walked away with the Sports Book of the year prize.