Mark Wilson: The King in the North
Unassuming, quiet and humble, the Cumbrian native prides himself on hard work forged in the wet, windy planes of Penrith and Kendal, and Newcastle Falcons' fans would be keen to remind you England's No.8 for the day has been performing at this level for years.
As the final whistle blew at Twickenham on Saturday, it would have been easy to focus on the explosive, yet borderline legal tackle from England's Owen Farrell. The thumping hit on André Esterhuizen almost gave South Africa the walk off shot at victory, had it not been for some brave, or depending on if you’re in Port Elizabeth, contentious refereeing, coming to the dual captains rescue.
Some would say it’s fair to assume that had the game had real value riding on it, then it may have been dissected further, however, that would be unfair to take away from the man who deserved all of the airwaves adulation he received post game.
A name new to some, Newcastle Falcons' fans would be keen to remind you England's No.8 for the day has been performing at this level for years, if not better. While some are happy their stars are overlooked, keeping them fresh for club action, there’s a feeling in the North East of England, similar of that in Exeter, that this national set up aren’t heavily invested enough in what has been occurring on their doorstep; they’ll be hard pressed to ignore now.
Unassuming, quiet and humble, the Cumbrian native prides himself on hard work forged in the wet, windy planes of Penrith and Kendal. That conventional beginning seems quite a contrast from the Kieran Reads or David Pococks of the world. Far from the same destructive path of counter part Billy Vunipola, his honest pilgrimage East through Cumbria, Blaydon and finally Newcastle gave him an appreciation for hard work, if not an X factor. What Wilson lacks in voluptuous power and stardom, he more than makes up for in dogged determination, flawless consistency and priceless output. His performance on Saturday, his fifth cap and starting at Twickenham for the first time, proves it.
Wilson announced himself on the international stage the only way he knows how: consistently, suffocating in defence and aggressive on the attack. With the ball in hand, Wilson was direct and effective. No forward had more carries than the 11 he took into contact on the day. A total of 20 metres gained sounds modest, but it was over double the amount his opposite man Warren Whitley managed, and it echoes the sentiment he’s willing to put himself through the hard yards, to give the other players with that elusive 'x factor' the platform to shine.
The other side of the ball was where Wilson was his most prominent. An immaculate 14 tackles, none missed, only bettered by hybrid second row come loose forward Itoje. Although Maro did manage one more tackle than the Cumbrian, it did come at a cost with 3 penalties and a spell in the bin, Wilson's discipline was immaculate.
The Falcon doesn’t just give you tenacious defence and positive gains in attack, he also offers effortless versatility, covering all three positions in the back row. In an age where each player has to become a specialist in their own position to even break into top tier club rugby, to find a player that excels across three at international level is as rare as it is invaluable.
Even when Zach Mercer was introduced for the injured Tom Curry, forcing Wilson to openside, arguably his least preferred of the three back row spots, he continued to carry well, defend firm and give England the platform to produce an improbable win. The character England showed in turning the tide and grasping victory in a game they probably didn’t deserve to win epitomises the man at the heart of it all. Relentless, consistent and refusing to accept defeat.
Wilson has been doing this for years in the black of Newcastle, the lows of a humbling relegation to the elation of a thoroughly deserved top four finish last season, not quite back to the glory days of Wilkinson, May & Noon, however, after two impressive champions cup triumphs over Toulon and Montpellier, this a Falcons side back at the forefront of English rugby, Wilson has been the one constant through it all. It’s about time he got the international recognition he deserves.
It’s no certainty what side Eddie Jones will pick for the 6 nations, injuries and suspensions aside, in fact, it’s difficult to assess who will be in the 15 for the highly anticipated game vs the All Blacks Saturday, but on this showing, Wilson needs to be seriously considered for both.