23 November 2003

The England captain Martin Johnson and fly-half Jonny Wilkinson have earned their place in the national consciousness 

Jubilation, justification, rejuvenation: Martin Johnson held the World Cup in his hands and the enforcer’s face lit into the sweetest smile as the years peeled off him. All those years, all those games, all those hits had led to this. As for Jonny Wilkinson, his brow furrowed for so long during this tournament was suddenly boyish in its triumphant happiness. He did the simplest, most obvious thing and it still went sailing between the uprights. He really was “over the moon”.

Johnson and Wilkinson have hearts of oak, the pair of them: and they merit such an old-fashioned phrase precisely because they challenge old preconceptions. Sure, in their separate ways they are both the ultimate in strong, loyal, Englishmen formerly moated with un-plumbable depths of English reserve. Yet now they are both acknowledged as giants of the modern professional era. Who dares stack such old virtues on some Cool Britannia bonfire?

For here is fame without the short cuts of “celebrity”. Here is worth measured more in value than “earnings”. Here is courage seen but never stated. Here are boots and arms and bodies that do the talking. Here is immortality sought on the pitch rather than off it.

In the past few years, months, weeks and most of all in those 100 impossible minutes of yesterday’s final we have come to realise just how much we depend on Martin and Jonny. Clive Woodward has built up as fine a team unit as ever pulled on an England jersey, if that’s the right term for the torso-hugging white body glove of today. But shut your eyes and let the images crowd in, and seared forever into the retina is that last-minute Wilkinson moment, the jink right for the drop kick and the white ball spinning into history. It crowned the ultimate in Boys Own heroics, but the memory also palpitates with the Johnson catalogue: the great catches in the line-out, the rumbling hits in contact, even that last power push that gained the extra second for the drop.

Johnson and Wilkinson have for long been in our consciousness, best of all they are always high in that of the opposition. Having tried to rile Johnson as a primitive beast (to which he just gives one of his Neanderthal pouts), and to de-stablilise Wilkinson as some shot-through mental wreck after he scored only 15 points against Samoa and missed a couple of kicks against Wales, the Sydney press reverted to puerile taunts of “boring, boring”. They were, and let’s use the words with careful relish, reduced to “Whingeing Aussies”.

Part of the media frustration is the lack of skirt under which to peer. The biggest danger for anyone hitting the modern-day spotlight is to start trading fame for intrusion. Lawrence Dallaglio’s “honey trap” disaster was all the lesson Woodward’s two superstars needed. We get to film and interview them, we read their ghost-written columns, but we do not get to know them. This should not be strange. In ordinary life it is good manners to be open and polite to strangers, but only a fool confides in every person with a tape recorder who sucks up to them in a hotel lobby. Profiles of Johnson and Wilkinson tend to be correct, not controversial.

Some of this is media savvy from two figures neither of whom are natural song and dance men. But the other part is the better side of professionalism. The pressures may be immense but so too are the rewards and the resources to support them. Time was when training was fitted in after work, “rehydration” was strictly pints of lager, and when both press and committee men earned more than the players who were patronised at having the luck to be on such a big stage. Now they are rightly treated as highly paid professional athletes with all the responsibilities and kudos that this can command. They are even allowed to advertise.

Only a few years ago to have seen the England captain and fly-half advertising razors and running kit would have been the end of life as Twickenham knew it. Yet who can argue that the respective commercial campaigns have not bolstered the Johnson and Wilkinson reputations as much as their bank balances? Before the Lions tour Martin Johnson’s face had fangs inserted, now it just stares out hard and pitiless at every opponent’s heart. Jonny Wilkinson and David Beckham’s Nike rugby/football duet had more than a code-crossing charm: it reminded everyone watching just how infernally gifted a pair of feet belong to the England No 10.

The commercials purport to take you closer to the real man, they actually return you to where they belong, to the pitch. That is where in this tournament both men have once again been immeasurably immense. During it Wilkinson was elected Players’ Player of the Year for the second winter running, but still set himself standards almost frightening in their intensity. If he missed a kick or took a wrong decision he was more upset than anyone. But he missed few, he tackled about four times his weight, he was the No 10 every other country would have doubled the national debt for.

As for Johnson, he remains, quite simply, the greatest presence in the game. Of all the people in the tournament, of all the Englishman in the world, he was the least likely to be pushed around. He may be England captain, an MBE, and a fine, generous and surprisingly genial citizen off the pitch, but on it he is hard, as hard as all the nails and oak-timbers that ever made a Nelson battleship.

Speed, athleticism and flair will always be the most visible part of the rugby armoury, but the basic ingredients start with contact and Johnson is quite happy to spell it out. “There is a line,” he says in his quiet almost soulful way, “and I have been over it, most people have. Yet people do like the contact part of the game. You have to stand toe to toe with these guys and they respect you for it.”

Respect is the word. Respect for the game, for the preparation, for the rules, for the officials, even for the opposition. As the final drew ever closer we yearned back to that other World Cup in 1966 and to two other figures whose very presence lit up our lives, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton. Moore, as captain, had that walk, more bandy legged and less fearsomely brooding than Johnson, but a walk on to the pitch and towards the opponents that both reassured and inspired you. Charlton, like Wilkinson, was the weapon.

But both pairs of players evoke another, even heavier word. It is courage. Think of what Moore and Charlton must have felt before they went out at Wembley. Imagine, more immediately, what it must have been like for Johnson and Wilkinson yesterday and for the last month, knowing always that 15 slavering brutes opposite were intent on making it hurt.

Even with all the television close-ups, even when Wilkinson was flattened in the first half, have you ever for one moment felt that Martin or Jonny were quailing in front of the foe?

True courage has an honesty that illuminates both those around and watching it. Of course it happens everywhere, in the hospital ward, among the downtrodden in distant dictatorships, in many other places where it really is a case of life and death. But it also happens on the sports field and rugby is the best of all in its brutal examination of the steel within the soul.

Yes, courage remains the greatest of all the virtues. Yesterday it took them both to the very end of the rainbow. In an ever more facile world, Johnson and Wilkinson have nailed the old-fashioned lie.

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