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The Cult: Jonny Wilkinson

Squat, clasp, eyes rendered coldly to the heavens... over it goes. England fans of any major sport will know quite how precious a player on whom we can really, truly depend is.

Toby Sprigings

England rugby icon Jonny Wilkinson is the latest inductee to The Cult. You can (in fact you must) read our previous entries here.

Cult Grade: The Pain

None do bathetic comedy quite like rugby boys. They somehow combine gigantic upper-bodies, a determination to be all in this together lads, and a distinct lack of anything resembling guile or intuition. It all makes them limply, enjoyably silly when they try to get all fervent and serious on your ass. Or arse, as they'd shout while reaching to spank it jovially.

In light of England managing to be the first team in history to host a Rugby World Cup and not make it beyond the group stages, two adverts in particular were pleasing to the eye: a pre-tournament Lucozade one, where an Australian player wants to impersonate England captain Chris Robshaw, an appeal that presumably cooled quite swiftly; and a beer one, on banners outside pubs, with a St. George's cross and the legend 'Time To Make History'. Well, you did that.

READ MORE: The Cult – Jonah Lomu

I didn't used to hate rugby. Or, more accurately, I didn't used to hate English rugby – obviously I find the way the All Blacks play on a different mental plain as mesmeric as anyone.

But since 2003 I have hated English rugby. It's a feeling of antipathy that congealed into something more acrid due to a boneheaded belief held by everyone involved with the Red Rose: that so long as you framed your tactics with chatter about impact-carriers and cross-ball marginal gain and input-output conflict-zones, you could disguise the fact that what you were essentially putting on to the pitch was a load of pumped-up sacks with biceps to be hurled at the opposition line, until hopefully one of them made a dent.

Still, I get the sense I could never hate the game as much as a part of Jonny seemed to.

Cult Grade: High

He was unquestionably the best of his era, as much at his own solitary level as Lionel Messi. Jonny Wilkinson kicking penalties from some godforsaken touchline at Twickenham became a delicious suspense-act for the crowd – surely he can't just nail this one too? Squat, clasp, eyes rendered coldly to the heavens... over it goes.

How's this for consistency: his England career penalty conversion rate is 79%; for try conversions, 81%. What is astonishing – and testament to his commitment to the pain – is that he genuinely was a continual work in progress. By the time he was at Toulon, the European Cup-winning curtain-call of his career, those numbers were 91% for try conversions and a mind-bending 97% for penalties. Just imagine doing anything 100 times and getting it right 97 times; and then factor in the 15,000 people noisily watching you do it.

England fans of any major sport will know quite how precious a player on whom we can really, truly depend is. Rooney at Euro 2004? Almost, and then a God armed with a script of English football slapstick first gave him a broken metatarsal, and then replaced him with Darius Vassell. Becks? Nope, nor any of his Golden Generation compatriots. Alan Shearer was another almost, but he still needed players to feed him. The best equivalent I can think of is Andrew Flintoff, who with a fair wind behind him was unstoppable. But still, that wind came and went; and there would be Jonny, eyes fixed, slotting it.

READ MORE: The Cult – Matt Le Tissier

The most familiar English sporting sensation as a crucial moment approaches is imagining the player in question will choke, in that dependably overwrought English way – but feeling that if they don't, it would be bloody great. Which is why it was so blissful that as Matt Dawson pulled the ball from the scrum in the dying minutes, gained an extra second of Australian inattention with that brilliant act of gamesmanship, then hurled the ball out, it was Jonny waiting for it. Once, in all my lifetime, have I been sure as an England fan that this was going to happen.

Blissful for us, of course. Here's just a few quotes from the kind of article the internet is littered with; he's honourably unguarded about saying these things. It's worth remembering they're from the mouth of the guy whose cumulative English points tally is 1,179; next is Paul Grayson with 400.

"Why have people been so kind to me and what is this feeling I get about this fraudulent side?"

About the transition from being 'a rugby player' to 'former rugby player': "When I look in the mirror at the moment, I see confusion, because I know I am breaking apart, but am not fully broken apart."

"The best thing about my career in terms of me as a person was being injured for four years and going through what I went through in terms of mental issues."

"The mirror is a great one for showing your own errors. You see through yourself, don't you, and you see yourself for all your little faults."

Think, next time you see some footage of those calm, steely eyes weighing up a 40m kick from the touchline and then slotting it, what you're actually looking at. Not a kicking robot in gear; a human-being who, by training in ways so relentless they sound like what some crazy commandant of a World War 2 forced labour camp would pick for inmates who'd declared a fondness for rugby, managed to at least soothe the voices that found his talent lacking. Essentially, to accept pain as nothing that can be escaped, which is half the battle. The other half is to then live like that; which defeats all of us, in the end.

READ MORE: The Cult – Allen Iverson

The Moment – with David Beckham, in an Adidas advert, 2003

Just because it looks like fun. The closest he's got to pure enjoyment on a rugby pitch. There's a brief murmur from the pain at the start, him informing his kicking partner "I can't leave 'til I'm happy." Becks beneath his beanie has never looked more like the middle-of-the-road lad from Romford who could have his pick of anything female in the Sugar Hut queue. Jonny's just in standard generic rugby gear. Then he gets to talk Becks through how to kick penalties when it doesn't really matter. Becks fluffs some rudimentary counting and left/right awareness. They both show what it's like to have feet that angle at a sweetspot. If you were to plot them on a foot-angle graph containing all the human race, you'd annotate next to them 'potential sporting superstar'. But only 'potential'.

Final Words on Member #20

This is a gift, it comes with a price. Florence & The Machine, Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up).

Words @tobysprigings / Illustration @Dan_Draws