Wilkinson’s skills will transfer to coaching

EX-ENGLAND international Tim Stimpson realised one of the great sporting careers was already in motion while stood getting drenched watching a schoolboy continually execute successful kicks from all areas of a soaked training field.
England's Tim Stimpson.England's Tim Stimpson.
England's Tim Stimpson.

Stimpson was a mean kicker himself, indeed almost metronomic and certainly prolific in a career that saw the Wakefield-raised full-back enjoy immense success with the peerless Leicester Tigers and feature in the famous British Lions 1997 tour of South Africa.

But watching a young Jonny Wilkinson in action prior to the teenager signing for his then club Newcastle Falcons, he was instantly impressed by his prowess.

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Almost two decades later, the revered former England fly-half will bring his glittering career to a close in Paris tonight hopefully in a style befitting his enduring class by leading star-studded Toulon to the Top 14 title.

Reigning French champions Castres stand in his way but, having steered Toulon to the European crown a week ago when defeating Saracens in the Heineken Cup at Cardiff, you will be hard pressed to find anyone betting against the 35-year-old World Cup winner completing the perfect double.

Recalling those early days at Newcastle, Stimpson told The Yorkshire Post: “Before he even joined Jonny came up, trained with us and kicked with me and (player-coach) Rob Andrew.

“Our coach Steve Bates was one of his school masters.

“He was only 17 but already blatantly really talented. He was a great goalkicker even then but also massively focused.

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“You could see he was a man on a mission straight away – a very intense and focused individual.

“You don’t get many like that. Most 17-, 18 year-olds want to get their training done and then out into Newcastle to see what that has to offer, but he wasn’t like that.

“Jonny was very inquisitive and wanted to talk rugby and ideas. A lot of people know now about his relationship with Steve Black and he was brilliant at nurturing him but he and – to a degree me, too – helped him unwind a little also.

“My legs used to be in pieces because he’d do so much practice; I’d have my tracksuit and hat on, stood in the rain kicking balls back to him as he’d carry on for another 45 minutes after I’d finished.

“What he put his body though was amazing at times.

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“It’d be a really great finale to an already fantastic career for him to win on Saturday night too.

“Going to France and playing with the likes of Matt Giteau has been an ideal situation for him and he’s immersed himself in it while leading from the front as skipper.

“He kept the scoreboard ticking over last week and he won’t have relaxed since then; he knows there’s one more to go.”

Wilkinson, who will forever be remembered for the drop-goal that won England the World Cup in 2003, will take up a coaching role with Toulon, whom he joined four years ago after spending his entire career previously with Newcastle.

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Stimpson, 40, believes he will be fitted perfectly to the role, even if it will be a difficult transition for him after so many years dedicated to the art of controlling games on the field on a weekly basis.

“Jonny has got those transferable skills of hard work and humility and any young player wanting to be a world class fly-half would love the chance to work with him,” he said.

“But it does take us all time to adjust and it is a different skill set.

“I’m sure he’ll take all the best bits from the likes of Blackie, Ian McGeechan, Clive Woodward or whoever while the real model he should follow is Mike Catt, who worked with the younger players initially at club level after retiring before taking a position now inspiring the backline of England.”

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The current England side, of course, are in situ in New Zealand ahead of their first Test in a week.

They will be a missing a raft of regulars given so many will feature in today’s Aviva Premiership final between Saracens and Northampton and will therefore not be considered for the Auckland opener.

Given the logistical issues, there are some fears there could be a repeat of the infamous 1998 Tour of Hell – on which Stimpson featured with a callow Wilkinson – where an under-strength England side were severely defeated.

“It’s going to be a great challenge and no matter what happens this time there’s going to be players coming back in for the World Cup next year,” he said.

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“But England are defending really, really well aren’t they?

“Stuart Lancaster has helped create a real style and discipline about their play. The likes of Danny Care and Courtney Lawes have both had a few issues of bother in the past but now they’re on the right side and Mike Brown is another who fully deserves his accolades as the Six Nations’ best player but is a feisty and fiery player who’s got a great challenge now to go down to New Zealand and reproduce that.

“I toured there a few times, the hardest of which was, of course, in ‘98 when we turned up and got hammered in Australia and all the way around New Zealand during that Tour of Hell.

“It is always tricky playing against a rugby-obsessed nation without eight of your best players. We got pumped but it was a great playing experience and it showed what we needed to do to improve.

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“But we developed a winning mentality and went down to Wellington a few years later to get that famous win and then on to the World Cup.”

Stimpson – who played with Leeds Tykes from 2004-06 – missed the cut in 2003, the last of his 19 Test caps coming the previous year.

Jason Robinson’s emergence – “it’s no crime to lose out to such a stand-out world-class performer in either code” – was partly the reason, but having won five successive Premiership titles with Newcastle and Leicester and back-to-back Heineken Cups, his record remains staggering.

Stimpson is currently preparing to embark on the Arctic Rugby Challenge for 2015 as part of fundraising for the children’s charity Wooden Spoon.

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A pioneering expedition will be led by the maritime polar adventurer, Jock Wishart, who will be joined by Stimpson and his ex-England Test colleague and fellow ‘98 tourist Pat Sanderson.

Setting out from Resolute Bay, Canada, in mid-April, the team will trek 100 miles to the North Pole in just 7 days – and then play the northern-most rugby match in history.

It would be no surprise if Wilkinson popped up there, too, for one last kicking challenge.