Jonny Wilkinson full of admiration for ‘powerful’ Owen Farrell as he opens up on alarming England struggles

Alex Spink
Jonny Wilkinson opens up about the tough times and praises Owen Farrell for stepping away from international rugby.

Jonny Wilkinson opens up about the tough times and praises Owen Farrell for stepping away from international rugby.

Jonny Wilkinson has praised Owen Farrell for the strength of character to step back from international rugby – and revealed there were times he wished he had made that call.

Farrell, the only player in history to score more points for England than Wilkinson, walked away from the Test arena after last year’s Rugby World Cup in order to “prioritise” his and his family’s “mental well-being”.

Shortly afterwards, he announced he would move this summer to the Top 14 in France and join Racing 92 on a two-year contract – following the example set by Wilkinson, who left English club rugby for Toulon at the age of 30.

Respect for Farrell

As Farrell prepares to move to Paris with wife Georgie and their two sons, Tommy and Freddie, Wilkinson has spoken of how massively he respects the 32-year old Saracen for taking charge of his own situation.

“In life it’s all about finding your balance and your wholeness,” Wilkinson said. “That’s the secret to performance, to your relationships, to leadership, everything.

“Becoming more in tune with what you need for your balance and being able to make such a tough decision on the basis of that wholeness – I’d certainly want that person in my team.

“Owen is a guy you can be sure wants to be on the field every time. To see him do what he has is a powerful thing and a significant moment in the conversation [about mental health].”

Wilkinson won a World Cup, two Champions Cups and a Top 14 title, scored almost 4,000 points and achieved iconic status in the most dazzling of playing careers.

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Yet he often appeared a tortured soul, driven by a quest for perfection, so tormented by his obsession it brought about self-doubt.

He says had he had what he describes as Farrell’s ‘trust’ he could – no, would – have stepped back from front line duty on occasions in his 91-cap career.

The former fly-half cites one example of when he did and admits there were many more occasions when he didn’t and was left tearing his hair out.

“I would be walking up and down the hotel corridor balling my eyes out,” he told Planet Rugby. “Phoning people at midnight, locking myself in the room, trying to get out of games, thinking before the game ‘shit, shall I go and tell the physio I’ve got a bad hamstring’.

“The opportunity was there for me to think ‘I could have a year out’, but that inner part of me was like, ‘it will be gone if you do’.

“Owen has taken that risk,” he added, “of being like ‘I’m taking a year out. It could all be gone, but I’m doing this for my health’. I admire him so much for that.

“You know the compulsive side is ‘I’ve got to win, I’ve got to have my name higher than everyone else’s’. But the truth says ‘I have to look after my soul. And when I find that I’ll inspire everyone’.”

On the face of it, Wilkinson found his inner peace when he moved to France, led Toulon to the top of the European game and achieved rugby immortality along that stretch of the Cote d’Azur.

The reality, he says now, was a little different.

“It’s all about whether you own the experience,” he said. “I didn’t. I went to France and I was by the sea, sunshine, different language and you suddenly think you’re on holiday.

“You get that sense you’re going to hammer it [in training] but, as soon as you finish, you’ve just got this innate sense that you’re on holiday. You go massive in, massive out.

“I wasn’t choosing to do that. It was happening to me. And the problem was, once I got used to the sunshine and the language I started going backwards.

“It worked for me for a while but then things just wound up tighter again and my last few years I was struggling badly.

“But I look at Owen and I honestly think he is in a position to go and enjoy it.”

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