It feels a bit surreal sitting with Jonny Wilkinson. She brings back memories of my big trip to Australia with my mother in 2003, when she told the teachers she was missing a couple of weeks of school so she could fly to Brisbane for the World Cup.
It’s been 21 years now but I vividly remember that quarter-final between Wales and England. We were leading at half-time and I was eating a hot dog thinking we were home and on fire, only for Jonny to score 23 points and take it away from the English.
Both as a player and as a young fan, Wales-England has always been the most important match for me. In 1999, my mother was on holiday in the Maldives and calling home cost her £6 a minute. She Didn’t surprise me that the only time she called home was to find out the result between Wales and England!
Everyone remembers their own version of events and that is part of its beauty. For Welsh people my age, Jonny often appears breaking our hearts, but over time you always remember him fondly.
I found him at the England training base (which is much more luxurious than Wales, with its chandeliers and grand piano!) and it’s lovely to know that he has equally fond memories of the England v Wales matches.
Dan Biggar sat down with Jonny Wilkinson ahead of England’s Six Nations clash against Wales
Jonny broke Wales hearts when he scored 23 points to secure his team’s place in the World Cup semi-final in 2003.
“My dad used to play for Alton Rugby Club,” he says, having pulled some strings to get us our own private room at Pennyhill Park. “Dad was that classic walking number 8 who might one day start at 15. My brother and I would go and kick balls and stick our heads into the bar where all these guys were sitting around the TV.
“It would be Bill McLaren on commentary and I remember watching Paul Thorburn hit one from the 10 meter line. England-Wales was always close. Always. Old shirts, pure red, pure white, baggy, long sleeved. You’d have Brian Moore wearing his shirt with his collar tucked in. That’s what I remember.
“I could smell it from the sidelines. I can smell it now. It was a golden era, not because of how wonderful rugby was but because of the energy it gave off. It was a beautiful thing, that was the romantic side of rugby for me. You saw those players on the field and they were almost superheroes. They were heroes but accessible.”
Everyone in my town in Wales would gather for this match. It was the most important game of the year, and it still is.
Everyone would always remember the 1970s when we were so dominant with guys like Sir Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and Barry John. Those guys set an exceptionally high bar that the rest of us had to try to reach.
It was a challenge at times, I must admit. I have sometimes wondered if the occasion means as much to the English as it does to the Welsh, and it certainly did for Jonny.
Legendary stars of years gone by such as Barry John and Gareth Edwards set a high standard for all Wales internationals who have arrived since.
“Wales is kind of a holy land for rugby,” he says. “If you drive down these little streets on game day, you’ll see how much it means to people. He was always next to Richard Hill on the bus. The days of the Sony Discman! The bus had tables and I was always in the same space, facing forward. He didn’t make eye contact with anyone, he just watched people on the way to the ground. In my head I was thinking, “There’s more of them, there’s more of them, there’s more of them,” but in the locker room it’s just you guys.
“Wales is almost like a rugby genius space. You hear about Barry John, who sadly passed away recently, and rugby in the 1970s. If we analyze those times, 2003 is the closest we came.
‘Against Wales there is always that ‘be careful’ feeling. Suddenly there can be that spark. They play rugby with their heart. Rugby intelligence is born in these guys, like New Zealand, and they can just create something out of nothing. If you feed that genie then it is dangerous. “We saw it in the second half of Wales against Scotland last week.”
I watched Wales’ defeat to Scotland in Toulon, where it was much hotter than yesterday at Pennyhill Park!
Jonny lives 20 minutes from the England base and is often at the camp advising the players. Both teams have a lot to work on after the opening weekend and, given their rather one-dimensional approach last year, I’ve been interested to read England’s comments about an up-and-down Bazball mentality. It’s a big change in philosophy and I’m curious to know what input Jonny has had on it.
“My role within the team is mainly to support the players,” he says. ‘I arrive towards the end of the sessions. I don’t know strategies, I don’t know what they are doing during the week.
‘But you see a bit of training and it looks good. It seems like people are finding themselves and moving towards something. You can see that there are errors that they want to eliminate from Italy’s game, to bring out the creative side of those players who can destroy the game.
Wilkinson has been involved in England’s camp for the competition, offering tutoring.
‘Intelligence is nothing compared to what your heart can do. The permission with that Bazball idea is to say, “What do you really want out of your career?” The excitement before a game of saying, “What is possible? What can we do?” Instead of saying, “We have to do this, don’t do this.” Maybe we’re attuned to this idea of having to suffer to get ahead. When you’re born to do something, like these guys do, it becomes Try to trust that.”
Even as a Welshman, I love the messages Jamie George has been conveying as England captain. We’ve been on Lions tours together and he’s brilliant company. He always has a smile on his face, radiating positivity, and it feels like a real change of mood from the era of Eddie Jones and Owen Farrell.
I was as surprised as everyone else when Owen announced he was leaving. Naturally, everyone will compare it to when Jonny left England for Toulon in 2011. It’s a fascinating move, but I don’t agree with the RFU’s policy of not selecting foreign players. Discussing it with Jonny, he seems divided on the matter.
‘I went to France desperately hungry because I had unfinished business. I was desperate to stay in Newcastle and had no intention of moving. I missed three years due to injuries and my knee completely tore up. Newcastle simply said: “We can’t do this.”
I never wanted to play against Newcastle, so I thought, “Let’s go abroad.” There was hunger in me. My intention was to go there and let go of what was left.
“It was a difficult end to my career with England and France was exactly how it should have gone.
‘It all depends on your intention and staying true to it. You’re not there to waste time. With Owen, there is unfinished business. There is an energy that causes horrible suffering when it should be fun.
It’s like Leigh Halfpenny. When that energy is strong enough, what happens is inevitable. Leigh brought it, you brought it, and I think Owen will bring it.
With guys like Owen not participating this weekend, it feels like the start of a new era in this match. Looking at the young age profile of the players, it could set the tone in this rivalry for the next 10 years.
I was at the Wales camp on Tuesday and the group felt like they were riding a wave after the second half in Cardiff, but there was no part of me that wanted to be back with them training.
It’s the first Six Nations I haven’t been in for 12 years and instead I’ll be joining Jonny in the TV pundit box, playing the smart guy and telling everyone what they’re doing wrong.
It takes time to find that comfort, tranquility and distance to enjoy the experience, Jonny tells me. “I feel like I’m still playing but in a different shirt. There’s always a sense of anticipation at Twickenham, the crowd always coming to give the team a chance. Now I’m one of those guys on the edge of the pitch and it’s almost becoming a bit mythical. I used to be on that field, kicking for hours. Now I look at it and it’s divine.
Biggar added that he admires England captain Jamie George’s calls for his teammates to be brave in the pursuit of glory.
‘He still has that great presence for me, but physically he is no longer relevant to my life. I can enjoy it and enjoy the journey of the young players.
‘This weekend’s game is open to whoever gives it their authority. Who finds that cruelty and trust, no matter how many mistakes he makes. Who says, “Let’s go for it.” There is always a reason to hold back. It’s about not being reckless or irresponsible, but finding that energy to say, “Why not?” Presenting ideas on how they can play safer will not be enough.
“Playing at Twickenham is definitely different to Cardiff. There is an opening towards Twickenham. You feel less susceptible to that energy. Twickenham always feels fast, a big ground with lots of space. “I always trust England, especially Twickenham.”
Jonny gives England an eight point win and on this occasion I have to agree with him. They return home after a win in Rome and physically I think their front five will have the advantage, but I hope Wales prove me wrong.
‘I can’t wait to see it from the sidelines. I just have to remember that it’s unprofessional to ask Jonny for an autograph!