THREE-AND-A-HALF years ago, Mark Wilson sat in the St James’ Park stands and watched New Zealand stroll to a 47-9 win over Tonga. At the time, it seemed as though the experience would be the closest he ever came to the Rugby World Cup.

This afternoon, Wilson will be back at the home of Newcastle United as Newcastle Falcons take on Sale Sharks in the ‘Big One’, their annual switch of a home game from Kingston Park. This time around, however, the 29-year-old back row will be promoting his own World Cup credentials rather than applauding those of others.

“I remember that All Blacks game,” said Wilson, who joined Falcons’ junior academy more than a decade ago after catching the eye while playing for his hometown club, Kendal. “Back then, I’d have never thought that playing in the next World Cup might have been a realistic possibility. But things change don’t they?

“Throughout my career, I’ve always tried to lift the bar. Once you achieve anything, you’re always looking to set a new bar and give yourself something else to aim at. The way these last two years have gone, it’s just been a case of constantly raising that bar.

“I said in the autumn that I wanted to have a good autumn series, and luckily enough I did. My next thing was, ‘Right, I want to make sure I’m involved in the Six Nations campaign’. Obviously now, four or five months out from the World Cup, that’s very much the next target, and something I’ll be working very hard towards putting myself in the best position for.”

Back when he was watching the All Blacks strut their stuff, Wilson was a raw, unpolished flanker trying to cement a place in the Newcastle Falcons team.

It was not until the summer of 2017 that Eddie Jones first reached out to offer him a route to the international game, and even then his call-up was only for a summer tour of Argentina that effectively saw England name a shadow side.

Wilson’s big break came last autumn when injuries to Billy Vunipola and Sam Simmonds and a suspension for Nathan Hughes resulted in his promotion to the starting XV for England’s first autumn international.

He went on to play in all four, claiming his first international try against Japan and finishing the autumn as one of England’s stand-out stars. That enabled him to retain his place for the recent Six Nations, and again he repeatedly caught the eye as Jones’ side finished second in the table behind Grand Slam winners Wales.

Newcastle Falcons’ director of rugby, Dean Richards, has long championed Wilson as a player that was being unfairly overlooked at international level because he was not playing for a more high-profile club side. Having finally got his chance, the Cumbrian has more than justified Richards’ faith.

“I’m delighted with how it’s gone,” he said. “I always got told at a young age that you get very limited opportunities in rugby, and you’ve got to take them when you get the chance.

“I’m a firm believer in what Dean says – I think we’ve got plenty of quality players here who have shown it over the last few years. I just feel very lucky and blessed I’ve had the opportunity to show what I can do.”

So now the dust has settled on last weekend’s remarkable Six Nations denouement against Scotland, how does Wilson feel England performed this spring?

Superb against Ireland and dazzling against France, England let themselves down when they threw away a winning position in Cardiff. Then there was the Scotland game, when England played some scintillating attacking play to establish a 31-0 lead, imploded completely as the Scots somehow rallied to go seven points ahead, before scrambling a George Ford try at the death that enabled them to escape with a draw.

At their best, England look a side that could beat anyone when the World Cup begins in Japan in September. At their worst, they look capable of collapse at any given moment.

“I think we’ve shown in a lot of periods in all the games that when we’re on it, we’re on it and we look world-class,” said Wilson. “Something we need to learn about as a team is how to manage the periods where the momentum goes against us a little bit.

“When that happens, it’s a combination of lots of things. It’s not just with England, we’ve experienced it here as well. You get parts of games where momentum goes against you – refereeing decisions, injuries, whatever – and you can feel the control of the game and the momentum slipping out of your hands.

“It’s just a case of trying to manage it a little bit better, whether it’s a tactical decision or a mental decision or a physical decision, it’s something we’ll look at closely. I’m sure Eddie and the coaches will look at it, and we as players will look at it before we go to the World Cup too because we can’t afford to have those periods in any of the World Cup games.

“But the one thing we’ve taken away as players is that we showed glimpses of what we’re capable of. Teams don’t put points on good teams in the manner we did, in short amounts of time, unless they’re at a certain standard. We’ve shown we can be so dominant in so many areas, it’s just about making sure that we’re hot on some of the areas you maybe don’t talk about as much as well.

“I definitely think we’re a side that still has a fair bit of improvement in us before the World Cup. You look at the games we played – we left points out there against France, we left stuff out there in the other games. That’s the promising thing I suppose.

“The mentality and atmosphere of the group is so good that we’re always trying to improve. We’re never satisfied with just being okay. Even at the weekend when we were well up against Scotland, we weren’t happy with where we were at. That’s the good thing, and looking ahead to the World Cup, hopefully we can keep improving and making sure that when we’re at the World Cup, we’re at our full potential.”

First though, Wilson has some domestic matters to address. Having secured their best league finish for a decade last season as they qualified for the European Champions Cup, Falcons head into the final six games of the current Premiership campaign rooted to the foot of the table, desperately trying to avoid relegation to the Championship.

Dropping out of the top-flight would have serious personal ramifications for Wilson given that he only recently signed a new four-year contract on Tyneside, but the collective impact on a club that does not boast the financial resources of the vast majority of its top-flight rivals would be even more far-reaching.

Falcons have dropped out of the Premiership once, only to bounce back relatively unaffected the following season, but the shift in rugby’s financial landscape means it would be much more difficult for the club to deal with another demotion.

“Last year, we were in a different position when we played here,” said Wilson, a childhood Liverpool fan. “We could come here and almost enjoy the occasion. It wasn’t season-defining in terms of the result. This year, we need to make sure we’re fully focused on winning the game. If that’s 3-0, I’ll go home a very happy man.”

And if Wilson was to score a try? “I’ve been telling people I might do the Asprilla cartwheel!” Now that would even beat the haka.