For the first time since 1995 the global tournament will be going ahead without him and he is starting to appreciate just what he is missing. Back at Twickenham as a tournament ambassador on Wednesday he even used the word “torture” to describe his current emotions as the 2015 edition looms.
As Wilkinson was swift to stress, however, the mental state of England’s current squad is a more pressing priority. The 2003 World Cup-winning fly-half was among those who witnessed things unravel at first hand in New Zealand four years ago and has also watched from afar in recent weeks as Manu Tuilagi and Dylan Hartley have removed themselves from contention.
It has merely heightened his belief that self-discipline is the key to World Cup success if England wish to be as successful on home soil as they were in 2003. “Mental investment” is the phrase he now uses and, notwithstanding recent events, he senses the vast majority of Stuart Lancaster’s squad are prepared to make the kind of sacrifices he famously did.
“When I speak to these guys I see people that care a hell of a lot about what they are doing,” said Wilkinson, who was helping Prince Harry and his fellow 2003 winner Will Greenwood launch the trophy tour in which the Webb Ellis Cup will visit more than 300 destinations in Scotland, Ireland, Wales and, finally, England between now and mid-September.
“You build your own path and every brick in that is important. To do things just because they’re written down doesn’t really mean anything. Anyone can do that.”
While sympathising with those missing out – in addition, Danny Cipriani is awaiting the result of a blood test after being arrested on suspicion of drink-driving – Wilkinson sounded like a man who would have adopted a similar stance to Lancaster’s had it been up to him. “The Manu and Danny situations is one of those where I’m sure these guys will look at it and say: ‘What was I doing? What was I thinking?’ For Stuart it’s tough as well … he doesn’t want to be making these decisions.”
In his own mind, it also brought back memories of the embarrassment he felt when, untypically, he let his standards slip momentarily in 2002. His lapse was simply being a couple of minutes late for a team meeting but he still winces at the shame. “I remember sprinting across the hotel because I was going to be late. I’ve never run so fast in my life and it was only a Monday.
“I didn’t get there in time and the meeting door was closed. I was outside, panting. I went to knock but then went down on my haunches thinking: ‘I don’t want to knock, I don’t want to walk into that meeting room because I’ve let them down.’ It wasn’t that I thought the guys are going to give me a bollocking. I just didn’t want to be the one [to let the team down]. You talk about guys doing stuff on the field … just being late for one meeting destroyed me.”
If England need a moral guardian they need look no further. Informal requests to help out have already been made by the national management and Wilkinson, who now spends a large chunk of his time coaching Wales’s Leigh Halfpenny at Toulon, would hardly be the worst person to mentor Owen Farrell and George Ford, whom their predecessor believes may both start at 10 this autumn depending on the opposition.
Wilkinson, though, says he would prefer to help out individuals rather than be wheeled in to lecture the entire squad on how to win a World Cup in the dying seconds. “I’ll tell them that, if they want to do that, that process needed to start a long time ago. Sometimes I come across Catty [Mike Catt] or Andy Farrell who have said it would be great to have me in, even just to watch some of the preparations and tell them what they think. But that’s just us being mates, really. I’m so aware that it’s about them [the current players].
“I don’t know what this generation want. If they said they wanted me to help them one on one I’d be there like a shot but I don’t want to come in and interfere. Some things I can help with but some things I can’t.”
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