Wilkinson driven by obsession

If England bring home the rugby World Cup in November it will be the culmination of four years of meticulous training sessions by head coach Clive Woodward - and almost certainly the obsession of one man.

In his mind Jonny Wilkinson has kicked the winning goal in the World Cup final thousands of times.

He does so at the end of every goal-kicking practice to try to simulate the pressure he expects to feel in the Telstra Stadium if England's dream of reaching the final comes true.

So paranoid has Wilkinson the perfectionist become that he cannot leave a training session without having slotted six consecutive successful kicks, imagining the greatest prize in the sport depends on each one.

It is an obsession which has seen him, by his own admission, on the "verge of a breakdown" on the Newcastle training pitch.

It came one midweek afternoon with the light closing in and his kicking practice going abysmally, despite the guidance of Newcastle and England kicking coach Dave Alred.

"The more I stayed the darker it got," explains Wilkinson. "The harder I tried, the worse it got. In the end I couldn't see anything and I was literally on the brink of running away I was that frustrated. I felt I was almost about to have a breakdown.

"I wanted to leave because I knew it was pointless but I'm one of those people who just can't do that. I just hate failing. It bothered me for the rest of the night. It was all I could think about."

It was not an isolated incident. Six successful kicks should take Wilkinson eight minutes, after which normally he would get the rest of the day to relax.

"One afternoon it took me about an hour and a half," says Wilkinson. "The balls were blowing here and there in the wind. I got tired and angry that day too because I know some days I can aim at a dot and actually hit it over and over again. I was constantly getting the fourth and fifth but missing the sixth.

"Sometimes you can be digging a hole and the longer you stay out there all you succeed in doing is putting the spade in deeper.

"I know I shouldn't but I'm one of those people who will dig until I come out the other end. I get so stressed and tense but it's about setting your standards high.

"It's not just kicking. In a game if there's four of us against three of them and I don't do my job and we end up missing the opportunity it nags away at me forever. I could probably tell you something bad like that from any game I've played in. I've got a memory bank, my own personal video horror show in my head.

"Great players and kickers are great because they've done fantastic amounts of great practise. Everything you've done since you started is there in the bank to be drawn upon.

"I just can't handle not doing myself justice. It annoys and bothers me."

Wilkinson admits his behaviour in the face of such frustration at times has been dreadful, though it is witnessed only by coach Dave Alred.

"I'm a bit snappy and abrupt with him and a bit off sometimes but he's brilliant at his job. Once I've sorted things out I always apologise to him. And he accepts it because he's been there, he knows that sometimes you've got to go through that to get the best out of yourself."

It is a side of Wilkinson hidden from the public, though England fans have received fleeting glimpses of the alter ego that lurks within, notably at the end of England's 29-9 triumph over South Africa at Twickenham in November 2001.

Wing Dan Luger had just sped over for a spectacular 90-metre interception try and Wilkinson saw his attempted conversion float inches wide of the upright. The referee blew the final whistle immediately and England's white shirts spontaneously gathered in a euphoric scrum of celebration to mark a famous victory.

Not Wilkinson. He stamped his foot and stood hands on hips, scowling at the offending upright, shaking his head in apparent frustration.

Some observers perceived his reaction as petulance. Wilkinson proffers a more professional explanation.

"We'd managed to get through a tough game and I'd visualised the kick going over," he says. "I was sure I'd kicked it and when it went wide it wasn't so much anger or frustration. It was just basic disappointment, a bit selfish perhaps. It was almost like 'This is a bit more for me' because it didn't matter for the team.

"You work all your life for those moments in training, that's why it was disappointing."

It is an illuminating insight into Wilkinson's complex character, which seems forever dominated by dark moments rather than the phenomenal success he has enjoyed.

He is much more likely to fret about what went wrong in England's Grand Slam failures in Scotland, at Wembley and in Dublin under Clive Woodward than celebrate the Grand Slam triumph against Ireland earlier this year.

He still scolds himself over the British Lions defeat two summers ago in Australia, when he became the youngest fly-half to tour with the Lions since Bev Risman back in 1959.

Most acutely, however, he feels the pain of England's World Cup exit at the hands of South Africa's drop goal specialist Jannie De Beer in the 1999 World Cup.

He admits consciously wanting to remember the hurt of that disappointment, in particular, as a motivational tool to ensure he does everything possible to avenge it.

His chance will come in the first phase of World Cup matches in Perth in October when the England v South Africa match is almost certain to determine the winners of their group.

That is when he will remember the famous posters on the Twickenham gymnasium wall, which have become his rugby Bible.

One proclaims: 'Greatness is achieved through the discipline of attending to detail.' The other simply says: 'Earn it!'. Surely no-one has earned the right to success