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December 16, 2011 8:45 pm
Lefties are a breed apart and I don’t just mean Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
I do not wish to distress Prince William, Bill Clinton or the recent London School ping pong champions also known as Barack Obama and David Cameron, who are all lefties. Nor would I want to upset those truly great tennis players John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova – nor Rafa Nadal, and then there’s the magisterial Phil Mickelson, a life- time president of golf’s leftie institute.
But the truth is that tennis players and golfers largely play for themselves. When they walk off court or are tempted by the 19th tee they have no one else to blame for their game but themselves. It’s utterly different in a team sport such as rugby union. By and large because most players are right-handed they pass the ball better from right to left (and therefore the left winger should score more tries) and it follows they kick with their right foot. Only Tony Jorden, who last played for England at full back in 1975, could kick raking 50-60 metre touches with either foot.
It therefore complicates team tactics if the scrum half or fly half is a leftie because their instincts as to whether to go right or left off a scrum or ruck are, as it were, back to front.
You can count the number of international leftie fly halves on one, erm, left hand. Let’s see: Roger Shackleton was capped four times for England when at Cambridge university in 1969-70 and then two years later Ian McGeechan, a fly half and then a centre, played for Scotland 32 times between 1972 and 1979. The Welsh valleys fly half factory may have produced the likes of Cliff Morgan, Barry John, Phil Bennett, John Bevan, Gareth Davies and Jonathan Davies – but they were, you’ve guessed, all righties.
Until. Until the arrival on the scene of one Jonny Wilkinson who made his England debut in 1998 not at fly half but as a wing substitute aged 18, becoming the youngest player ever to wear the jersey. For the next 13 years, through thick and thin, Jonny was a fixture in the side. And which ever side it was, he was there when England won a Grand Slam in 2003 and three Championships in 2000, 2001 and 2011. And by the by he broke every kicking record in the book.
Most rugby players would have swapped our lives for his year in 2003 – that Grand Slam, success away against New Zealand and Australia, a world cup medal and finally winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He is still the only rugby player to have won it. Gareth Edwards, John Dawes, Willie John McBride, David Duckham and Andy Irvine might have deserved it in another era but it was Wilkinson’s quiet demeanour which won the public vote.
Sport though has a habit of tripping you up.
Wilkinson was then absent from England duty through a succession of quite dreadful injuries, which would have caused lesser players to throw in the towel. He was out of action for 1,169 days between the end of the Rugby World Cup final against Australia in 2003 and the start of the 2007 Six Nations Calcutta Cup match against Scotland at Twickenham on February 3 2007. He had just one opportunity during this time when he was a late addition (injury again) to the disastrous British Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005 coached by Sir Clive Woodward.
I wonder how we would have coped had we been away from work on and off for over three years? I suspect most of us would have been in and out of depression. We would most certainly have lost our confidence. We might also if we had had inadequate insurance and mortgage cover and been struggling to make ends meet.
Not our Jonny. What drove him? Was it a fear of failure, for he would always be the last to leave the training pitch, irrespective of the weather, going on and on for hours ironing out his weaknesses and improving his strengths. Aside from Roger Federer and Luke Donald, I doubt if there was ever a sportsman or woman in recent times who has spent so much time honing his considerable skills.
He must have been profoundly disappointed at the shenanigans at Twickenham this past six months. The lack of professionalism was a disgrace to the game he so loves. But while he would have been upset at Martin Johnson’s resignation as England coach following the disappointing world cup in New Zealand, he was destined to retire from international rugby before next year’s Six Nations championship. Time has caught up on him as it does all sportsmen and women.
Nonetheless, there is a tremendous depth to him. His respect for Buddhist teachings shines through. Not for him the fleshpots and the cocktail bars. My how this year’s Rugby World Cup results on and off the pitch must have cut him to the quick. He will play out his career at Toulon hoping to take them to a Heineken Cup final. No doubt a family life beckons there.
I was in the stadium in 2003 when Jonny exited the stage on a filthy rainy night in Sydney with a world cup medal and that winning drop goal from his right foot and I was there at Twickenham when he returned to the England team in 2007. The crowd gave him a tumultuous reception the likes of which I could not recall. England had had such a disappointing set of results losing two coaches (and soon another).
He kicked five penalties, a drop goal and a conversion and to top it off he scored a rare try: not a bad day’s work then for a leftie.
A former MP, the writer played rugby for Oxford university, the Barbarians and England
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