The boy with the golden boot

He is good-looking, clean-living, great at kicking a football and better at making money from his sport than any other player.

It’s rugby’s Jonny Wilkinson we are talking about here, not football’s David Beckham.

The 22-year-old fly-half scored all of England’s points in their 24-7 demolition of France. He’s 80 minutes away from kicking his team to their first-ever Rugby World Cup win and England’s greatest sporting triumph since lofting the Football World Cup way back in 1966.

Wilkinson has just been named international player of the year for the second season running. He’s the man feared most by Australia, the hosts of the fifth Rugby World Cup and its defending champions.

They clash at Sydney’s Telstra Stadium on Saturday.

If the shy number 10 keeps his eye in and shoots the Lions past the Wallabies, greater glory and greater riches are in store.

Wilkinson’s sponsorship deals already earn him $2,5-million a year and he’s likely to double that in 2004 if England become the first northern hemisphere side to win the Webb Ellis Trophy.

Like Becks, Wilkinson is the playmaker, the dead-eye-dick the team turns to when the ball is placed on the spot for a penalty shot at goal.

Like Becks, Wilkinson breaks the mould of the big, boofy, boorish, ball-player.
He’s shy, a home-boy rather than a gad-about, and the least likely to turn up for training with a hangover and a pending drunk and disorderly charge.

And like Beckham, he’s learnt that saying very little is no impediment to celebrity status.

Famously diligent, famously a perfectionist, he is also famously economical with words.

After more than a month in Australia, the lad with the golden boots (he can kick with either foot) has hardly said enough to fill a single newspaper story.

Asked at a press conference whether sharpshooters like himself were ruining the game and that those who ran over the line holding the ball should get a greater reward than those who kicked it between the posts, he replied: “I’m not necessarily the right person to get to talk about that.”

Asked again whether the rules needed changing, he replied: “It’s how you understand the game, so what can you do? You play to the rules, you know, and get on with it.”

Which is really the key to the Wilkinson enigma: he just gets on with it—he’s focused like a laser, he’s untroubled that people see him as an automaton, as a humourless goal-kicking freak.

At the age of 12 Wilkinson announced to his parents that he wanted to play for England. From all accounts, his life from that point on was dedicated to a single goal.

Wilkinson, despite his choirboy looks and enormous dedication, doesn’t have a career ahead of him as a motivational speaker or television personality.

He tends to state the obvious and eschew any giveaways about his private life. How about this for tedium: “As a professional sportsman you have to prepare just as you do for any other game. The key is not allowing to be distracted from that, and that for me has always been the most important thing.”

It’s verbiage worthy of David Beckham, football’s best-known exponent and its highest-paid player.

Beckham earned close to $21-million in sponsorships last year. So rugby’s boy-next-door has a long way to go to catch up.—Sapa-DPA

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