Jonny Wilkinson at 40

Few players have captured the imagination and transcended their sports quite in the same way as Jonny Wilkinson, who turns 40 today.

Few players have captured the imagination and transcended their sports quite in the same way as Jonny Wilkinson, who turns 40 today.

The former England fly-half won four Guinness Six Nations titles, including a Grand Slam, kicked the winning drop goal in a World Cup final and was for a time the record points scorer in the history of international rugby.

And yet his impact went far beyond his honours on the pitch. He was the face of the dominant England team of the early 2000s who claimed the Grand Slam in 2003 on their way to global success.

And his legendary dedication to training inspired generations who followed.

While there will never be another Wilkinson, it is no coincidence that the many of world’s top fly-halves have imitated his mental approach to the game.

In Owen Farrell, Wilkinson now works with the player who perhaps most resembles him, both in terms of defensive commitment, unerring accuracy from the kicking tee and the intangible leadership only the best No.10s can provide.

But what was it that set Wilkinson apart?

On the pitch it is easy to focus on his relentless point-scoring, his willingness to put his body on the line in defence in a way that was rare for a fly-half, and of course his distribution.

Off it though, is where Wilkinson perhaps stands out even more.

Tales of training sessions on Christmas day, his close relationships with kicking coach Dave Alred and mentor Steve Black, give a true insight into how Wilkinson reached the top.

With Alred he would not simply practise kicking from every spot on the pitch. The pair would pick out targets in the crowd for him to hit rather than just splitting the uprights.

Every session would finish the same way, with a series of six kicks that all had to be perfect. Miss one, and he would start all over. Those extended sessions might not have been glamorous, but they were the difference when it came to making the most high-pressure kicks of all.

Look at the likes of Farrell, Johnny Sexton or Leigh Halfpenny now and it is easy to spot the similarities with Wilkinson in their singular strive for perfection.

Goal-kicking, perhaps more than any other task in the game, is a reflection of the hours of work that have been put in.

For Wilkinson, there was never any question that he would duck out early if things were not going to plan, and the rewards were plain for all to see as the second top points scorer in the history of the Guinness Six Nations .

While Alred may have had the biggest influence of Wilkinson from a technical perspective, it was perhaps meeting Black that had the greatest impact overall.

The former bouncer and the Surrey schoolboy made an unlikely pairing, but their time at Newcastle Falcons together had a profound impact on Wilkinson.

A pair of obsessive individuals, Black in some ways protected Wilkinson from himself. Later in his career Wilkinson has admitted that he overdid it at times in training.

In Black he had a mentor who would tell him when enough was enough, and when the work he was putting in was doing more harm than good.

In an interview in the Guardian, Black explained how he and Wilkinson had an agreement that each day they would do something to make those who loved them proud. Wilkinson continued to live by that standard long after he had left Newcastle.

During those early years with England, Wilkinson was the focal point of the Martin Johnson-led teams, culminating in the Grand Slam and World Cup victory in 2003.

It was not easy but success seemed to come naturally.

However it is the way he came back later in his career that is in some ways more indicative of Wilkinson’s mindset.

For many, the run of injuries he suffered after 2003 would have been too much to take.

Wilkinson realised that as much as the immediate physical treatment is of prime importance, the mental response to injury can be just as crucial.

His relentless perfectionism was only one aspect of Wilkinson the player. He was also able to have a positive approach to injury which played a large part in often getting back fit earlier than expected.

In the final years of his playing career, Wilkinson moved to France and was able to take a step back from the limelight.

Of course he was still Jonny Wilkinson and the biggest name in a star-studded team at Toulon, but that move allowed him to enjoy a different environment.

The positive approach stretched beyond his response to injury and influenced everything he did on a rugby pitch.

Even now, as a kicking consultant with England, the Wilkinson effect is still being felt in the modern game.

However it goes further than his day-to-day contact with the current England team.

Farrell, Sexton, Alun Wyn Jones, Peter O’Mahony. Each is different, and yet there is a little Wilkinson in all of them.

He was unique, and yet his influence endures long after the final whistle has blown on his playing career.