Q&A with World Cup-winning ex-Hoppers star
Millions watched around the world as Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal seconds from the end of a thrilling final saw England secure their first world title.
It capped an incredible career for the former Stonyhurst College pupil, whose mother taught mathematics at the college and father Dick coached at the famous Ribble Valley school.
In 2006, Will retired from the game after winning 55 England caps. He now is a television pundit and columnist and lives in London.
What was it like to be part of England’s greatest sporting moment since 1966?
‘At the time, you don’t realise the enormity of it all. It was just like any other changing room, lads who had lived their lives for eight pints, a curry and the enjoyment of the game coming together to achieve something incredible.
‘People don’t believe me when I say that, but that’s what it was like. The jokers, the serious guys, Mike Tindall and Iain Balshaw arguing about what music to play on the bus. It was no different from playing at Preston Grasshoppers, but in a different environment.
“Perhaps the innocence of it all was why, perhaps, we managed to keep our nerve, because you didn’t realise what you were going to miss. It was a real sliding doors moment, though. If Australia had nicked it, would I be a different person? No. Would my life be completely different now. Probably.
“You know there is a great photo of Jonny Wilkinson about to kick the drop goal in Sydney. People’s desire to listen to what I have to say was magnified by a multitude of 250 because the kick in the World Cup final did go over.
“When we got back to England, I remember the open-top bus turning into Oxford Street and we genuinely imagined there would be a few hundred people there to greet us. But to see 50,000 cheering fans...well, that’s when it really sunk in.
“The confidence winning the World Cup gave me in my own personal life and on the rugby field was incredible.
“Yet I don’t remember it as this magnificent occasion that changed English rugby.
“I remember it as a good night out on the rugby field with my mates, doing what I loved doing at the highest level.”
What are your memories of growing up in Lancashire?
“I lived in Smithy Row in Hurst Green. I walked out of my front gate, and the bowling green, cricket field and football pitches were right in front of me.
“Sport was always my life, I suppose. Cricket...football...rugby...golf. The old man (Dick Greenwood) and a few of his mates helped set up Stonyhurst Park Golf Club. They still had sheep on the course in those days!
“People ask me if I have any regrets in life ? Just one – that I never wore the Hurst Green Football Club shirt. Really. That’s how much it meant to me.
“I was always looking over our garden fence going, ‘Go on give us a shout – pick me’. I played at Longridge Cricket Club for a couple of years, though, and I loved that.”
You learned your trade with Preston Grasshoppers before turning professional with Harlequins in 1994.
“I loved it at Hoppers. I was playing in a fourth team match against Vale of Lune. There was this big old, fat lad, a giant of a fly-half, with more tape on his head than an Egyptian mummy. He saw me and thought, ‘There’s lunch’.
“He hit me so hard I didn’t know what day it was. I was only about 17, but he didn’t realise my father was playing No.8 at the ripe old age of 49! My old man chased him across the field – it was like a Benny Hill sketch – caught him, put two fingers up his nostrils and slapped him around the chops. He didn’t hit me again.”
Can England emulate the team of 2003 and lift the World Cup in New Zealand later this year?
“England are improving fast under Martin Johnson, but I can’t imagine The All Blacks missing out again. They have a core of players who’ve experienced so much together.
“It is an enormous opportunity for a country that lives and breathes rugby to allow them to smile again, to believe and hope after the terrible earthquake in Christchurch.
“So often in life the power of sport is underestimated, the way it can bring communities together and that is something the whole of New Zealand will draw on during the World Cup.”
What is your greatest sporting memory?
“You can keep the World Cup final. I have never watched it again. My favourite moment in sport is Manchester City v Gillingham, 1999, Wembley. At 2-0 up, Gillingham took off Carl Asaba, they thought they had the game won.
“Then Kevin Horlock scored and Paul Dickov netted and City won on penalties. The place was going mental. I went through every single emotion in the course of 130 minutes that day and I would give my right hand to live that day again.”