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Feb 4, 2018

England World Cup 2003 hero Jonny Wilkinson talks about life after professional rugby

World Rugby Hall of Famer and star of England’s epic 2003 World Cup victory, Jonny Wilkinson, talks to Frank Grice about life after professional sport – and directing his boundless energy into business instead.

Any fan of English Rugby worth their salt will be able to tell you exactly where they were when Jonny Wilkinson received the ball with 26 seconds of extra time left in the 2003 World Cup final versus South Africa.

The stunning subsequent drop goal not only secured the nation’s first Webb Ellis trophy, but also permanently interred Wilkinson within the pantheon of rugby greats.

Injuries may have hampered Wilkinson’s career post-2003. His leading of the national team to the final of the 2007 World Cup, and later years spent plying his trade with French giants Toulon, however, only further cemented the formidable fly-half’s reputation as a global sporting star. And even his eventual retirement in 2011 hasn’t stopped the Surrey-born legend from doing what he knows best.

“It’s funny because I have extra energy to burn now, so maybe I train even harder!” the 38-year-old laughs. “When you’re doing rugby you’ll go to the gym in the morning and do weights, then later on you’ll have your actual rugby session with your forwards or your backs and then finally your team session where you go through your plays. So those sort of days can last a long time!

“In France we would train in the morning to avoid the heat, then go home, before going back to train in the late afternoon - once I’ve added a couple of hours kicking practice to that, training was pretty much the entire day. It keeps you in shape very well but it also expends so much energy.

“So now that I’m not involved in the rugby I have to train very hard to just push the boundaries for the sake of it. After my training now I’ve got the rest of the day to do whatever I want so I’m training harder now, I just destroy myself!”

For Wilkinson, this relentless drive to succeed is not only the basis of what made him one of the greatest ever to grace the rugby union pitch. It’s also a trait he sees in other exceptional sporting talents, and one he looks for in his contemporaries and role models.

“I grew up with Boris Becker, Nadal and Federer, and a lot of the old Australian Rugby League boys were very influential for me and in my career,” he explains. “They’re part of your life and what drives you. I think of how I played on a rugby field and it was all inspired by the greats and the guys that have lived their lives in a way which is an example to follow.”

As with any sporting professional, however, there is always a sense that any success is matched by the fact that, come your early thirties, you are already beginning to envisage a life of retirement. For an individual as motivated as Wilkinson, this transition could potentially have been a highly jarring experience.

“In rugby it was always looking at the end of your career and hoping to see some sort of a mark or remnants of an impact you’ve made, something that came from you that you were able to conjure up yourself,” he nods. “That’s the joy of being a human being - everyone has that unique ability to come up with something, because we are different and we are individual. But you know, I think in a way our aspiration is that in the tiniest way possible, we hope to bring that out of people too. There’s a drive there - where can we go next and how good can we make it?”

In spite of his vaunted career being behind him, it’s hard to imagine a time when Wilkinson wouldn’t be connected to the sport he loves in some fashion or another. These days, he is using his expertise to shape the ambitions of his own clothing company, Fineside, which allows fans to bring a touch of Wilkinson’s legacy to their training regime and, he hopes, wider life.

“We don’t necessarily create clothes specifically for the purpose, but I train in Fineside all the time!” he said. “We made a training t-shirt a few years back called the Yeti. It was made out of sweat absorbent materials and I train every day in one of those, especially in the hot weather. I’ll wear maybe some Adidas sports shorts but Fineside upper-wear is what I wear to train in.

“But I’ll also wear it heading out to the shops too. My understanding of sport and movement was always going to feature quite highly within my fashion wear. It kind of has that ability, without being specifically designed for it.”

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