It’s hard to argue that since professionalism that there has been a player that has meant more to rugby than Jonny Wilkinson. Only Jonah Lomu has as much international recognition and with injuries cutting his career short Wilkinson has been in the spotlight longer. Wilkinson has done just about everything you can do in rugby and won every major achievement. He won the World Cup on a dramatic drop goal, he’s won the Premiership, Top 14, and the Heineken Cup, and on his debut was the youngest England player ever.
What really sets Wilkinson apart is his class. There are numerous stories of him standing behind to great fans, give autographs, and to generally be an ambassador for the sport. He is a team player that is not a distraction in the locker room and has not been engaged in scandal like some other top players. Rugby, especially in America, is often stereotyped as brutish players that drink constantly and get into trouble. Having a role model like Wilkinson is a great counter-point to these sterotypes.
Once he retires in two weeks Wilkinson will be taking a job on the coaching staff of Toulon. However, I’m here to argue that he should only make that a temporary stop and that he should instead come to America. America has long been rumored as the next breakout spot for rugby. There is a lot of evidence to back that up. There are hundreds of college programs around the country, some of which are now embedded in their athletic departments, we literally have hundreds of thousands of children playing rugby every year, the Eagles are beginning to play in front of full stadiums, and the Olympics are only going to put the spot into great national conscious.
All that said, we have a lot of work to do. Aside from a few top clubs most clubs lack solid coaching and good facilities. The pathway to get from a good youth player to the national team isn’t always clear despite intentions. We also have a few knuckleheads that taint the image of the sport around the country with stupid antics that get programs suspended.
If Wilkinson came to the U.S. it wouldn’t be automatic that he could fix some of those problems but there are certainly problems he could help address. Coaching is the biggest need he can address. Maybe he helps out with the Eagles or maybe he becomes a coach at large where he visits programs and offers recommendations there is something he can do to help out.
Maybe he is best suited for a role that will draw greater attention to rugby in this country. What about being hired on as a rugby ambassador by U.S.A. Rugby? Not only would he be able to get in doors that U.S.A. Rugby can’t do currently but he would also help draw the attention of the world media and sponsors. Another option is for an organization like the Varsity Cup or Pacific Rugby Premiership to bring him on as a commissioner. Surely his years of professional experience could be put to use on how best to run a competition and to make the approach professional.
In the end will Wilkinson leave Southern France for the U.S., a place in which he has few ties? Right now the odds are probably one in a million but as Lloyd says in Dumb and Dumber, “so you’re telling me there’s a chance.” There is no doubt that Wilkinson would be beneficial to the game here. From a pure challenge standpoint it offers the greatest challenge left for a player who has already conquered the rugby world.