Sharing your surname with one of England’s greatest players might be seen as a double-edged sword by some. For Kieran Wilkinson, however, it’s an honour to be associated with King Jonny – a man he has admired from childhood and once happily shared a training pitch with.
Budding No.10 Wilkinson, 19, grew up as a junior at Preston Grasshoppers watching his World Cup-winning namesake from afar and, after ascending through the ranks of Sale’s academy before being selected for England’s U17s, he was handed a chance to work with his hero.
Wilkinson, who made his European debut for Sale at Perpignan last weekend, explained: “I enjoy watching all No.10s and admired guys like Quade Cooper, Beauden Barrett and Danny Cipriani as well, but Jonny Wilkinson would have been the big one I watched growing up.
“He had it all really and when I was part of the England U17s, John Fletcher got me down to Pennyhill Park for a kicking session with him. It was a great experience seeing all the England team training first – a little overwhelming really – but then I got to spend time with Jonny.
“That was great and it was a real good time for me coming through that U17s and U18s programme with Fletch, Russell Earnshaw and Peter Walton. They’re not there now but they were a massive influence in my early career and I’ll always be grateful for those chances.
“I was involved in the U18s Six Nations, travelled to France and South Africa for tournaments and the whole experience of wearing the rose and playing against different teams, with the challenges those different environments posed, was an enjoyable part of my rugby education.”
Wilkinson is clearly unfazed by the big occasion, for last weekend he found himself thrust into the limelight as Sale’s starting fly-half for their Challenge Cup match in France, playing alongside South African Test stars Faf De Klerk and Rohan van Rensburg in a 41-24 victory.
He said: “I played some Anglo-Welsh Cup last season but it was my first European game and I was surprised to get the nod, but you always try to take your chances and it was an exciting challenge. The crowd was pretty fierce and French teams are very physical, but I enjoyed it.
“I set myself high standards and always try to progress with teams I’m involved in, and when you look to your left and see Faf De Klerk and to your right is Rohan van Rensburg, it just gives you that bit of reassurance to play your own game and take everything they offer on board.”
A sparky No.10 with good feet who likes to attack the line in the manner of Harlequins ace Marcus Smith, Wilkinson may get further opportunities with Sale regular AJ McGinty out injured.
He added: “We’ve got Sam James and James O’Connor is coming back, but I’ll look to take any chances I get. England U20s is also on my radar and we’ll see how the season goes.”
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