Byline: By Frank Malley
JONNY Wilkinson hopes he is sick with nerves when he takes his first kick at goal in the World Cup final against South Africa.
If so then he knows he is in the perfect frame of mind to handle the expectations which are building as England close in on history as the first team to successfully defend the Webb Ellis trophy.
"I've never played in my career, for Newcastle or whoever, when my heart has not been racing beforehand," said Wilkinson. "That goes since I was 18 years old. That is the life of a goal-kicker. You desperately want to do well for your team. You want to be able to walk off with three points.
"That doesn't change. That's one of the tough parts of kicking - but because you know it is consistent, you can also use it as a slight comforting factor. It's been there for a long time." Wilkinson kicked the late penalty and slotted the drop goal which killed off France in the semi-final - but if England supporters lined up the statistics of this extraordinary tournament they might be prone to worry themselves.
Wilkinson's strike rate, for instance, hovers around 60%. He has scored 61 points so far at this World Cup. South Africa's kicker Percy Montgomery has contributed 93. England have scored 12 tries; South Africa have crossed for 33 touchdowns.
The firepower is with the Springboks, something Wilkinson readily concedes - although he also hints at something of an inferno raging within the England camp. "Percy's been kicking fantastically well. It's not coincidence that a guy who works so hard at his kicking is showing it now. Fair play to him," said Wilkinson. "But I'm enjoying putting games together, and everyone here is bang on and raring to go.
"If you could be inside the camp you would see how much this game means to everyone. Once the final whistle went against France, everyone's minds turned straight to this game. If you could see the intensity, there is nothing more important to these players than this game."
Inevitably, Wilkinson has been the man caught in rugby's searchlight these past few days. American Football interest has been dragged up once more, with reports suggesting NFL clubs are queueing up to pay him pounds 6m a year. He is closing in on the slipstream of Lewis Hamilton as second favourite for this year's Sports Personality of the Year. He has coped with it all by relaxing with his guitar at 5. …