Byline: CHRIS JONES
JONNY WILKINSON and Steve Black are rugby's odd couple.
Wilkinson is the highest-earning player in the game with a pristine image while Black is a bearded former pub bouncer with a broad Geordie accent.
They appear to have nothing in common until you see them working together in the gym. Their almost symbiotic relationship started when Wilkinson was midway though his teens, a precocious talent that needed nurturing, and Newcastle Falcons chose conditioning coach Black for the job.
Since that first meeting, Black - known as Blackie - has ensured that Wilkinson has matured into the best No10 in the world despite a series of injuries that appeared to put his rugby career in jeopardy. Well, at least, that's how it looked to everyone else.
Black never had any doubts that Wilkinson would be fit to join the British and Irish Lions for their 11-match tour of New Zealand - which starts on his 26th birthday next Wednesday. The coach has been the mental and physical rock Wilkinson has clung to during the agony which followed the drop goal that won England the World Cup on 22 November, 2003.
Since that life-changing moment, Wilkinson has been forced to deal with a serious neck operation, a bicep problem and successive knee ligament tears that threatened to ruin his Lions chance. Wilkinson was added to the tour party only after convincing head coach Sir Clive Woodward that the most famous left leg in the sport is now back to full working order.
The Newcastle outside-half 's relentless pursuit of excellence has taken him through a series of dramatic highs and desperate lows in recent seasons and the one constant factor throughout that period has been Black's unwavering support.
As Wilkinson said: "Along with my family, he is the major part of my career.
I need him there to play the game. As soon as you mention to me the word 'rugby', that includes Blackie."
The 47-year-old Geordie has been coaching sportsmen for more than 30 years, after giving up his job as a pub bouncer when he passed an honours degree in sport.
He says he has taken inspiration from some of the great coaches of American football and the giants of the corporate world.
Black joined Newcastle when professional rugby started in 1996. He was later employed by Wales as their fitness guru which led to a similar role on the 2001 Lions tour alongside coach Graham Henry, who used Black as a sounding board during the trip to monitor the wellbeing of the players.
He then had a brief spell working with Paul Bracewell at Fulham FC before returning to Newcastle.
His return proved hugely significant for Wilkinson, who went into the 2003 World Cup with a neck and shoulder problem. It eventually proved impossible to manage in February last year and surgery was the only option. Since that day, Wilkinson's career has been one long medical bulletin and it has been Black's job to prove the many doubters wrong.
BLACK said: "I had no doubts Jonny would be even better when he came back from the injuries. …