By Humphrey Carter

PALMA
STRICTLY speaking, England's 2003 World Cup hero Jonny Wilkinson MBE is currently “home-from-home” in Majorca enjoying one last break from England's official preparations for the forthcoming World Cup in France but, with defending the world title clearly on his mind, the injury-free Wilkinson is continuing his training and physical conditioning on the island.

However, he did find time to give the Daily Bulletin a rare and exclusive interview.
Wilkinson clearly likes to be out of the media spotlight, the only pressure he feels comfortable with and can not live without is that of rugby (it is his “comfort zone”) but, here in Majorca, an island he and his family have been visiting since he was five, he has found an environment he feels comfortable and relaxed in.

Had I gone to interview Wilkinson in Newcastle, where he plays for the Falcons, or anywhere else in the world, I very much doubt he would have suggested that we “walked-and-talked”.

So, the interview was conducted as we strolled around his neighbourhood and down to the coast, admittedly it would take a brave person to rush Jonny Wilkinson in search of an autograph or photograph (although a more polite person one could not meet), but no one seemed to notice him; and that is one of the reasons he has a home where he does on the island.

During our “walk-and-talk” we managed to touch on a wide range of rugby subjects, past, present and future as well as his battle to overcome a string of injuries and his love of Majorca.

Today, I am going to focus on Wilkinson and England's current preparations for the World Cup, his expectations and the important relationship the England set-up has with the Royal Marines.

In 2003, Jonny Wilkinson returned triumphant after having scored the winning drop-goal in the dying minutes of the World Cup final against Australia in their back yard. But he flew home with a neck injury which proved to be the first of a series which have kept him off the rugby pitch for most of the past four years.

However, this week he said that he is feeling “good, really good. “I've been blessed with enough time to get away from all the injury stuff, so it's been nice to just wake up every morning able to get straight into some heavy training with the rest of the squad as opposed to doing my own thing in the gym or having to pull out of sessions. “It's great to be able to just forget about all that and focus on what's really important,” he said.
England's World Cup preparations got under way in earnest when coach Brian Ashton surprised the squad by packing them off on four days training with the Royal Marines last month.

The players had gathered at Bournemouth airport for a flight to their training camp in Portugal, but Ashton had other ideas. “Once we reached the airport we soon realised that none of the coaching or medical staff were about and we started to smell something fishy,” Wilkinson said.

But, it was neither the first time Wilkinson nor the England rugby squad has been sent to a Royal Marines training camp. England first went in 1999 and Wilkinson was part of the squad dispatched to Lympstone in 2003 on a number of occasions. “We've developed a really close affiliation with the guys down there. We've been down there several times, in fact our Man of the Match award has become a tribute to them, and I think it's good we've got a relationship with them because they're a major help when it comes to leadership, or rather learning the art of leadership,” he explains. In fact he gives the impression that the England rugby squad has been learning the art of war as they draw up their World Cup battle plan! “They help up a massive amount with learning how to think correctly under pressure, how to go into a situation with a few preconceived ideas and a few plans in place but yet, be able to adapt to changes and respond efficiently to them. “They're very good at understanding the time for delegation and the time for putting your head down and getting on with it. They're also very good at spotting weaknesses in parts of people's characters under any given situation and that will enable us to react and delegate to those best suited for any given challenge on the pitch. “The training camp was also an excellent test in finding out who is capable and who's not when it comes to dealing with pressure and an extremely tough environment,” Wilkinson said.

The England fly half and highest point-scorer in the history of the Five/Six Nations believes that much of the pressure in the World Cup is going to come from the three main Southern Hemisphere teams, France “playing in the back yard” and Ireland.

But, he stressed that teams like Samoa and Argentina can never be written off. “They're good, solid emerging teams which know how to bring down the top sides”. One gets the impression, however, that the England camp is keeping its cards close to its chest. “Our chances are good but this is an interesting place to be because it's not 2003 as such. “We're not going into the tournament on the back of a season in which we've been relatively unbeaten - we haven't built up to a peak but at the same time it's nice to be in a different situation where the pressure on us from the outside is less intense to a certain extent, on the inside the expectations and pressure are as high as ever, but from the outside the pressure is less so the team has been able to get on with its work and preparation without knowing that everyone is thinking we're the team to prepare for and the team to beat. “So it's nice to be able to pack a few aces up our sleeves, get on with the work silently and quietly in the background and, come the World Cup, be something of an unknown force as opposed to a known force which other teams have had time to prepare to play against. “We understand that we're in a different position but, as a team, expectation and confidence is no different inside the squad and, from my perspective and my experience of the last World Cup, I think I understand that the key to the World Cup is to get to the semi-finals, once you get into the semis, those last two games look after themselves in terms of the high pressure and quality of the rugby - it feels like the path has almost been mapped out from that point in - from then on any one of the four teams can win it. “Those two final games come down to how the team plays on the day and who gets it right. “I think all bets are off from that point. “It would be nice to be one of the four - the other three will probably come from the Southern Hemisphere or possibly Ireland or France which will possibly go in as favourites.” Whatever odds the bookies put on England as the tournament kick-off nears, Wilkinson appears unfazed by the massive challenge ahead and is confident that the England squad has a good balance, especially with former World Cup winners like Lawrence Dallaglio still in the squad and expected to play another World Cup. “It's nice for him because, since '97 when he went on the Lions tour he's been relatively unlucky with injuries. It was quite amazing that he managed to get himself right for the last World Cup - I think it's great that the World Cup figures so highly in his career - but he is also a good leader and has an enormous physical presence on the pitch - I guess he's also an inspiration to some of the other guys, especially the new ones, to be around. “With his experience and nous, it's really difficult to quantify just how much that means to a team. It's nice to have that on your side but at the same time it's a shame the likes of Richard Hill are not going to be fit. But, we've got new fired-up players, young blood and for whatever reasons many of the 2003 World Cup winners are no longer in the squad one has to accept that outside rugby, life goes on.” Tomorrow, coming back from injury, mind games and Majorca

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