A fitting end to a remarkable career
17 years after turning down a place at Durham University to play professional rugby, only a few days after turning 18, Jonny Wilkinson hung up his distinguished boots having guided his star-studded Toulon side to their second trophy of the season.
And how fitting that his boots – specifically his left one – contributed four penalties and a drop-goal, that ‘God Save the Queen’ rang out around the stadium in his honour and that he was awarded honorary citizenship of Toulon on returning to his adopted home.
The Ultimate Professional
A week before he had calmly steered a side boasting some of the biggest names in world rugby to a consecutive Heineken Cup trophy and in a staggering example of his professionalism admitted in his post-match interview that he was already thinking about the following weekend’s fixture.
And it is that mentality that has made him arguably the biggest name in the history of the sport, aside from perhaps Dan Carter and Richie McCaw:
And they aren’t the only legends of the game singing their praises for the guy that put rugby on the map:
The Complete Player
His autobiography makes for fascinating reading as he admits a desire to succeed to the point of obsession – and nausea at the prospect of failing – and following of Buddhism principles to control these but would he have been the global super-star he is if it weren’t for that need to be kicking goals on Christmas Day? Perhaps not as big a star, though one senses the God-given natural talent would have got him a long way.
Let’s not forget that as an 18-year old, in his first season at the Newcastle Falcons, he was often started at inside centre ahead of All Black Inga Tuigamala and British & Irish Lion Alan Tait, and the side went onto win the Premiership that year.
It was the same year Wilkinson made his debut for England – on the wing – and traveled to Australia and New Zealand on the infamous ‘Tour of Hell’, when he took over the fly-half and kicking duties from Rob Andrew, going onto score just shy of 1,500 points for the club, almost 2,000 for Toulon and over 1,200 at International level.
Yes Wilko could kick, and better than anyone in the world in his heyday, but it would be a monumental shame if this is how he is remembered, because he was the complete player. He had pace and a dynamic side-step, the ability to play flat to line and distribute with pin-point accuracy, a cool enough head to manage even the most pressurised of games and a more thunderous tackle than most flankers.
After the disappointment of the 1999 Rugby World Cup, the side grew and Wilkinson grew with it. Anyone that thinks the side became the best in the world by playing boring rugby should be shown their run in the build up to the 2003 Rugby World Cup: three tries against Australia (Melbourne, June 2003); two against Australia (Twickenham, November 2002); six against South Africa (Twickenham, November 2002); three against New Zealand (Twickenham, November 2002).
And who scored a scintillating try against the All Blacks in that game? Wilkinson of course – watch this and tell me if it’s boring:
What set that side apart was its ability to adapt. The anomaly amongst the above results was a 15-13 victory over New Zealand in June 2003. I was fortunate enough to be in that crowd at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington when, amidst swirling wind and sideways rain, England bravely defended their tryline with 13 men and gave Jonny just enough field position for him to do his thing: four penalties and a drop-goal in those conditions was nothing short of miraculous.
And we all know what happened on 22nd November 2003.
For the next four years the country held its breadth every time he returned to domestic rugby in the hope that he would survive the affair but a succession of injuries to his shoulder, arm, knees, kidney, with a hernia and appendicitis thrown in for good measure, kept him off England duty for almost four years, though he did play on the ill-fated Lions tour of New Zealand.
You sense anyone else would have thrown in the towel.
But Wilkinson went on to take England close to a consecutive World Cup crown, becoming the only player to score points in two World Cup finals and a move to the south coast of France saw him rejuvenated to the point of being awarded the ERC Player of the Year award in 2013 and being nominated again a year later.
An Inspirational Captain
His form for Toulon has been nothing short of his best but what staggers has been his ability to gel a team of some of the world’s best rugby players, without an ego in sight.
Toulon’s owner Mourad Boudjellal, described Wilkinson, “Not just as a rugby player,” but “the finest gentleman you could ever meet” and the fact French fans from both Toulon and their opponents in last weekend’s Top 14 Final, Castres, stood and sang along to the English national anthem highlights the extent to which the World Cup-winner is revered both sides of the Channel.
The world of rugby’s loss is the Toulon coaching staff’s gain. Jonny, thank you.
Caps: 91 for England, 6 for the Lions; 7 Tries; 169 Conversions; 255 Penalties; 36 Drop goals
Rugby World Cup Champion: 2003
Six Nations Champion: 2000, 2001, 2003 (Grand Slam), 2011
IRB International Player of the Year – 2003
BBC Sports Personality of the Year – 2003
ERC Player of the Year – 2013
Premiership Champion: 1997–98
Powergen Cup Champion: 2001, 2004
Heineken Cup Champion: 2012-13, 2013-14
Top 14 Champion: 2013-14