Perhaps the biggest testament to the international career of Jonny WIlkinson is that when it comes to picking a place to start a tribute to him, it’s hard to know where to begin. Whatever ever Wilkinson achieved after that drop-kick in 2003, his status as a legend was never going to change. Arguably though, his journey had just begun.
I joined Lord Wandsworth College in 2001, where Wilkinson studied and played at 1st XV level, four years after he had left and moved north to join Newcastle. Like a million other people up and down the country, I idolised him. Those first five years with England, from 1998 to 2003, were without a doubt his best. From his debut at the back end of the Six Nations against Ireland, through the Tour of Hell of Australia and then the disaster of the 1999 Rugby World Cup, the young Wilkinson soon learnt what international rugby was all about. Over the three following years, he was without doubt the best in the world.
Although three Gland Slam titles slipped through England’s fingers, Wilkinson consistently racked up more than 20 points against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. He was at the heart of England’s 19 match unbeaten run from March 2002 to the World Cup final in October 2003, producing a series of magical moments; his chip-kick try against New Zealand at Twickenham, that huge tackle on Justin Bishop of Ireland in the Grand Slam decider, his control during the brutal famous win in New Zealand that summer. But it will be that drop goal that is never forgotten. Because never has a World Cup been won in such dramatic fashion. No one cares that he’d missed three attempts beforehand. Jonny brought home the glory. Jonny pushed us all into a state of elated delirium, giving us a memory we would never forget. And Jonny became immortalised, as Jonny.
During those first five years, Wilkinson was perhaps the most admired player in the world. What happened after that kick however, won him an unrivalled amount of respect from fans and players, as he constantly battled back from career-threatening injuries. His intense dedication to training was no secret by this stage, with his 3 hour extra kicking sessions the stuff of legend. But it was the way Jonny mentally put himself through each and every rehabilitation, even after the sixth of seventh setback, that placed him on a level above any other player.
Read through the casualty list, and you are left in disbelief; fractured shoulder, knee ligament damage, a haematoma, medial ligament damage, an appendix operation, groin operations, a torn abductor muscle, kidney damage. 1,169 days passed between Wilkinson’s performance in the World Cup final and his return in a white shirt against Scotland in February 2007. How many players in that position would give up? Or more rationally, how many would just accept defeat knowing they had given it everything? That is was what made Wilkinson stand out. His perseverance saw him come back to win another 39 caps for England, along with another Six Nations title back in March of this year.
Of course amongst those 39 caps were two more World Cups, in 2007 in France and a few months ago in New Zealand. Whilst the 2011 campaign was a disaster that left Wilkinson despairing with the attitude of some of his team-mates, 2007 was nearly the perfect fairytale. The journey in France where Wilkinson’s boot was influential against first Australia and the hosts in the knockout stages, nearly saw him end four years of injury agony with more World Cup glory. It wasn’t to be, but his time on the continent appeared to stir something inside Jonny. Two years later, after over a decade at Newcastle, he made the move to the Côte D’Azur and began a renaissance at Toulon that everyone was delighted to witness. Jonny looked healthy, fit, but most importantly was playing some of his best rugby again. Having visited the town this time last year, I know that he will enjoy every last minute of his career there.
It was with a heavy heart in our post-mortem of the Rugby World Cup that we suggested that now was the time for Wilkinson to retire. Not out of malice or disappointment, but sadness that it wasn’t working any more. Regardless of how well he performed, his dedication was never in doubt. It is hard to think of a sportsman, not just a rugby player, that showed his level of humility, desire to improve and determination to excel, all whilst loving playing for his country. The high standards to which he set the bar in all those areas should be the benchmark for every young rugby player.
There is a wonderfully ironic symmetry between the current re-structuring of English rugby, and when Wilkinson emerged as the fly-half to lead England forward following the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Just as he came through, now the baton passes on to Owen Farrell, George Ford and the rest. We hope that they might replicate his achievements. But we happily know his legend will never be touched.
by Ben Coles