Ex­clu­sive Rob An­drew on the magic of work­ing with Jonny Wilkin­son

In the fi­nal ex­tract from his new book, Rob An­drew re­veals how he guided the first steps of the fly-half’s glit­ter­ing ca­reer

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page -

He went be­yond the call of duty – way be­yond, to the point where it went well past ob­ses­sive

It was Steve Bates, my team-mate at Wasps and a teacher at Lord Wandsworth Col­lege, who first in­tro­duced me to Jonny Wilkin­son. “I’ve got this kid at the school,” he said to me at train­ing one evening. “He’s very tal­ented. More than that, though, he has the most ex­tra­or­di­nary work ethic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a young­ster who puts so much into his rugby.”

When we headed to New­cas­tle we hatched a plot to bring the boy won­der to the club the mo­ment the time was right. Un­be­known to me at the time, Jonny had al­ready hatched a plot of his own. A plot rather grander than the one we had con­cocted.

By the age of seven, he had de­cided on in­ter­na­tional rugby as his des­ti­na­tion in life and right from the start, the ex­tra mile was not nearly far enough for Jonny. He pre­ferred the ex­tra marathon, the ex­tra cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of the globe. By the time the mo­ment came to point him to­wards New­cas­tle that fa­nat­i­cal, al­most ma­ni­a­cal ap­proach to train­ing and prepa­ra­tion was so in­grained in him that we would not have been able to lighten his self-im­posed load even had we felt it nec­es­sary.

It was a new one on me, this ob­ses­sive streak. There would be oc­ca­sions, a lit­tle later in his ca­reer, when I was tempted to won­der if he was driv­ing him­self much too hard – whether, in his case, the fine dis­tinc­tion be­tween ge­nius and mad­ness was be­com­ing dan­ger­ously blurred.

But when he first ar­rived, the in­ten­sity of his at­ti­tude seemed like a 24-carat pos­i­tive, and any­way, who of us can state with com­plete cer­tainty where an­other in­di­vid­ual should draw his pa­ram­e­ters?

When he joined us it was on a one-year con­tract that would earn him the princely sum of £12,000 – a more than gen­er­ous of­fer, we felt, for some­one fresh out of the play­ground. We put him up in a house in New­cas­tle’s West End. It was not the most salu­bri­ous part of town by a very long chalk; in the full­ness of time, when Jonny found him­self in a more sought-after prop­erty on the golf course at Sla­ley Hall, he must have felt re­lieved to be more at risk from a mist­imed three-iron than a stray brick. Still, we all have to start some­where.

We need not have wor­ried about him strug­gling to set­tle in the ab­sence of home com­forts and

fa­mil­iar faces: Steve Black saw to that. Blackie was a real find for all of us, but in Jonny’s case he was a cru­cial fig­ure, cen­tral to pretty much ev­ery­thing that would hap­pen over the com­ing years.

Blackie was a born op­ti­mist who knew how to boost the con­fi­dence of those peo­ple in his or­bit. He was the antidote to the world ac­cord­ing to Jonny – an oa­sis in a desert of tor­ment.

What did he find when he first started work­ing with Jonny? A fix­a­tion with be­ing the best that he had not pre­vi­ously en­coun­tered in any area of sport. In or­der to stop your­self go­ing barmy, you have to ac­knowl­edge that while you’re al­ways aim­ing to play a fault-free game, and that while just oc­ca­sion­ally you might go some­where close with your kick­ing or your pass­ing or your tack­ling, there will in­evitably be some­thing you might have done bet­ter, if only marginally.

Jonny found that sense of bal­ance elu­sive, I think. He was al­ways at risk of be­com­ing con­sumed by the pur­suit, of driv­ing him­self deep into a place where he was at­tempt­ing to achieve the un­achiev­able. Blackie might have been taken aback by his in­ten­sity at first, but he made it his job to con­nect with him, en­cour­age him and, in a way, pro­tect him from him­self.

Jonny’s ca­reer statis­tics – tour­na­ments won, points scored, tack­les com­pleted, con­tri­bu­tions made – may have rugby’s math­e­ma­ti­cians sali­vat­ing, but I pre­fer to see his ca­reer through the prism of com­mit­ment, de­ter­mi­na­tion and self-sac­ri­fice. Those qual­i­ties are the prod­uct of a beat­ing heart, not a ma­chine.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen any­body push them­selves to the limit in pur­suit of a set of ob­jec­tives, both per­sonal and team-wise, in the way he did.

If he was not the most nat­u­rally blessed player who ever ap­peared at No10, has any­one ever squeezed more from their re­serve of tal­ent? He showed a fi­delity to his work that went be­yond the call of duty. Way be­yond, to the point where it be­came ob­ses­sive. Cor­rec­tion, it went well past ob­ses­sive.

He would be the first to ad­mit it. For him and his clos­est al­lies, man­ag­ing that ob­ses­sion and en­sur­ing that it didn’t be­come wholly de­struc­tive was hard work. In the end, though, he emerged with an aw­ful lot of the re­wards he de­served.

I don’t know the an­swer to this, and I don’t sup­pose Jonny does ei­ther, but what would have been his re­sponse if, when he was 10 years old, some­one had told him: “This is what it will look like when it fin­ishes – these win­ner’s medals, the World Cup fi­nal dropped goal, the late re-flour­ish­ing in France. And the price you’ll have to pay for it is go­ing to be this big [in terms of in­juries]. What do you say?”

My hunch, for what it’s worth, is that he would have replied: “Yes, the price tag is big. Ter­ri­bly big. But I’ll still pay it.”

When he joined us it was on a one-year con­tract that would earn him the princely sum of £12,000

Steady in­flu­ence: Rob An­drew holds the ball as Jonny Wilkin­son kicks for New­cas­tle in 1999. Five years later (above) the pair swap ideas as cap­tain and di­rec­tor of rugby

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