Jonny Wilkinson on the rugby world cup, his Farnham roots and sports fashion
PUBLISHED: 14:29 03 November 2014 | UPDATED: 16:55 25 April 2018
Being widely recognised as one of the world's best rugby players can take you almost anywhere you want to go, but for Jonny Wilkinson, France is far enough. And with one eye on a return to his home county of Surrey in the near future, we caught up with the star to find out what comes next…
Bringing the curtain down on a glittering club and international career has, by Jonny Wilkinson’s own admission, been an easier process than he might have envisaged.
In truth, retiring from a game you’ve been playing since old enough to hold a rugby ball is made all the more comfortable when accompanied by a healthy bank balance, a sumptuous lifestyle on both sides of the English Channel, and a new fashion project that, if anything, will keep him even busier than as a fully-fledged professional sports star.
“I never wanted to leave the sport with nothing to do – nothing to confront me,” says the Frimley-born fly-half, speaking exclusively to Surrey Life. “I guess, subconsciously, I’ve been gearing my projects up over the past few years because I’ve known my career was coming to a close. I’m not the sort of person who would just be able to end it all and sit back on a sun-lounger, although that does sound nice!”
The 35-year-old’s immediate focus is on Fineside, his clothing brand, which he says is inspired by daily wear that is “comfortable, stylish and durable.” It’s a project that has already been four years in the making, but Wilkinson believes the brand has much further to go.
“It’s an exciting time – obviously I’ve worked as an ambassador for products and services in the past, but it’s never been of my making, and that adds a whole new layer of excitement and pressure.
“It’s a different pressure though to that experienced on a rugby field – at least when you’re playing you feel you are in control and can quickly affect any situation. This is much longer-term, and you need absolute faith in your product from the start, because once things begin, there is no turning back.”
Speaking of turning back, rumours have surfaced recently of Wilkinson returning home to England following the cessation of his rugby career with Toulon in France, and quite possibly to Surrey. After all, he wed long-term girlfriend Shelley Jenkins last year in a private ceremony, so settling down could well be on the radar. However, the truth is, he has never really been away!
“I’ve always been coming back to the UK to visit my mum and dad who, up until recently, lived in Farnham, where we grew up,” he reveals. “I’d go to see them every time I was down at Twickenham; it would be almost a fortnightly thing. During the Six Nations, you could even call it a tradition!” he laughs.
And Wilkinson would rarely miss an opportunity to show off his childhood stomping ground to his England team-mates. “When we were on international duty, we’d have training camps at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot, and on days off, I’d take the likes of Mike Catt and Richard Hill down to my old haunts to show them around. It’s a nice place to show off, and when my mother wasn’t cooking, there’s a nice Café Rouge down the road too!”
Rugby World Cup
Of course, with the Rugby World Cup taking place here in the UK next year, and Pennyhill Park already confirmed as the official training base for the England team, the attractions of Bagshot will no doubt be on show to the world as the mass media descend. So, with the cream of world rugby set to do battle in England, does Jonny believe that the current crop of stars can match the 2003 side’s achievement and lift the Webb Ellis Cup?
“They’ve got a chance,” he grins, “but it will be tough. In the last year, the England side has really stepped up a level – winning in New Zealand and pushing the All Blacks close in the other two matches was significant, and it’s the sort of experience Stuart Lancaster’s side can take with them into the World Cup. Plus, the home advantage could be worth an extra 10 points as well.”
Speaking of home advantage, it’s somewhat reassuring that, despite the lure of French cuisine, Wilkinson still craves the simplicity of a good old-fashioned country pub.
“A pub lunch and a roaring fire is probably one of the things that makes me believe I’ll always have a base in the UK,” he smiles. “We’re treated well in France but you cannot beat what us Brits do best, and that’s the pub.
“And Surrey is a part of England that’s very important to me,” he continues. “I spent my first 18 years there. I’ve always thought of it as a unique county – everywhere is very relaxed. And there’s so much to explore – it has history in stately homes, innovation in motoring – so much sitting side by side.”
But are there enough Fineside retailers in the county right now, we enquire. Jonny laughs. “I think we might need to do something about that! It has been a bit of an aspirational thing that my brothers and I always wanted to do. I know there are lots of celebrities who come out with product ideas, but there is a different angle in the emphasis on fashion and sportswear. The two don’t usually go hand-in-hand, so we’re trying to put together something new.”
And Jonny says working with designers and fashion industry experts to conceptualise and deliver the product has actually been the easy part. “The toughest thing was probably the fact that I was doing it all from France, so that meant lots of conversations over Skype and on e-mail. But whenever I can get back to England, I’ll check out the samples, assist on the photoshoots and help create a look-book. It’s a real team operation – a constant exchange of opinions, information and instructions.
“Actually, when put like that, I suppose it’s not much different to being on the rugby pitch!”
My Favourite Surrey
Restaurant: The Farnham Tandoori – that’s a great place to go! It’s quite well-known and has a great atmosphere. The whole place is very relaxed, and the food is superb.
Shop: When my brother and I were very young, there used to be a sports shop we’d go to in Farnham. It was called Holland’s, named after the owner, and was just around the corner from the house. We’d nip there and back without mum noticing. Being sports addicts, we were fascinated by the stuff on sale: tennis rackets, cricket bats, rugby balls etc. We’d just stare at them for a bit and leave! But I love all independent sports shops. There aren’t that many of them about these days, but we should look after and cherish them as they’re the heartbeat of real sport.
View: There was a great wasteland at the bottom of our road, Brambleton Avenue, in Farnham. I’m not sure it had a name, but we used to walk the dogs and kick balls around down there. We actually did something for our Fineside website recently where we went down there and kicked an Aussie Rules football around; it was like going back to our youth!
Place to relax: We used to play cricket down at Frensham, or take a rugby ball with our dad and just spend hours down there.
Place to visit: Obviously, we tended to frequent Farnham Rugby Club pretty often! But we also used to go to Farnham Sports Centre all the time too. We’d go in the morning and play short tennis or five-a-side football or maybe just go for a swim... or in fact anything really that we could do for three hours until we managed to exhaust ourselves!