Oval Talk

Farewell Jonny Wilkinson: so good, so humble, so revered

Oval Talk

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Jonny Wilkinson's first, scarcely credible, thought after his drop-goal won the 2003 rugby World Cup for England was 'oh no, it's all going to be downhill from here'...

Eleven years later, even the ultimate perfectionist may realise how wrong he had been.

That moment, during a nerve-shredding finale in Sydney, when he swung his right foot to crown England as the first northern hemisphere world champions, will undoubtedly top Wilkinson's list of achievements.

When he went three-and-half injury-ravaged years before appearing again for his country, that 'only way is down' outlook must have seemed gloomily prescient.

There was, however, still much, much more to come as Wilkinson embarked on his long and winding road of sporting success and personal development - and entwined with enough serious injuries to have finished three careers.

He can point to six British and Irish Lions caps, 91 appearances for England, who he helped to a second World Cup final appearance in 2007 and to four Six Nations titles.

There was also an emotional Heineken Cup triumph for Toulon last year, a feat which supported his coronation as European player of the year.

In Cardiff on Saturday, a day shy of his 35th birthday, he will try to help Toulon retain that title against Saracens before playing his final match in the French Top 14 final against Castres the following week.
After that, he will retire.

Until then, however, his motivation will be exactly as it was when he began playing mini-rugby as a seven-year old - to give absolutely everything, physically and mentally, to help the team succeed. Nothing less.

There can, surely, have been no other sportsman who reached such a pinnacle of achievement by claiming so little personal glory -- and who dedicated so much of his life to mining every last drop of his own talent before enhancing it with endless, obsessional practice.

Throughout his career, Wilkinson simply refused to be beaten - by opponents, situations or six painful months of rehabilitation.

His 2011 autobiography 'Jonny' included an illuminating passage about his first years of contact rugby. In it, he explained in matter-of-fact style, the joy he felt when he saw the parents of a victim of one of his destructive tackles burst into tears.

There was no malice - just satisfaction at a task completed to the best of his ability and for the good of his team.

Wilkinson continued to smash into opponents throughout his career and became the toughest-tackling flyhalf the game has known.

His fearless and total dedication did not always serve him well. Some of his many injuries may have been avoided if he had followed the more traditional and cautious approach of the key playmaker.

Wilkinson, of course, refused to countenance such nonsense and he will hurtle into every collision over the next two weekends with all the familiar gusto he can muster.

While he will certainly join the pantheon of England greats, his early international experiences gave little hint of what was to come.

In 1998, he helped Newcastle to an unlikely league title and won his first cap, off the bench against Ireland, as an 18-year-old winger.

He played in the 'tour of hell' that featured humiliating thrashings by Australia (76-0) and New Zealand (64-22) and saw Paul Grayson preferred at flyhalf for the 1999 World Cup quarter-final defeat by South Africa.

By the time the next World Cup came around, he was a British Lion, albeit a losing one in Australia, and had established himself as England's metronomic points machine, whose dedication to practice was already legendary.

By its end, he had written his page in British sporting folklore, his drop-goal in the last minute of extra time securing that famous 20-17 victory over Australia.

He was named Britain's sports personality of the year, IRB player of the year, made an MBE and then an OBE - all of which, typically, he felt immensely uncomfortable about.

Then the injuries came thick and fast: shoulder, bicep, knee, ankle, hernia and lacerated kidney. No sooner had he recovered from one than it seemed he would be struck down again.

Wilkinson never complained and never rued his luck. He reacted simply by trying his utmost to recover.

He did it so well, and so often, that successive England and Lions coaches found they could not do without his assured and proven match-winning presence.

He went on and established himself as the sport's all-time leading test points scorer - since overtaken by All Black Dan Carter.

His 91st, and final, England game was the quarter-final defeat by France at the 2011 World Cup, where he was suffering to the last.

"Right to the end of that game, I still couldn't bear the thought of not being perfect, or letting people down," he wrote in his autobiography. "When you're obsessive, like me, searching for something unattainable can become unhealthy."

He found solace, however, in Toulon, after moving in 2009.

Wilkinson thrived in the Mediterranean port, immersing himself in the city and the club, winning the respect of both the locals and the collection of world-class talents that their money-laden outfit has been able to attract.

He took huge pleasure in taking home the Heineken Cup last season, not missing a single goal kick in the three knockout games, but, typically, felt the campaign had been a failure when Toulon were beaten, by Castres, in the Top 14 final.

He has a chance to make amends over the next two weeks when a second Heineken final is followed by a rematch with the domestic champions.

"For a player like Jonny, who has done so much for the game in the way he has carried himself in the right light - he has never put a step wrong and he has been incredibly humble - it would mean a lot," said his Toulon team mate Matt Giteau.

"He would be embarrassed that we are talking about it because that is the player he is. He keeps himself focused on the team, but it would mean a lot to the group if we were able to send him out on the right terms."

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  • Born May 25, 1979; Frimley, Surrey, England
  • Joined Newcastle Falcons in 1997 aged 18 as an inside centre, deferring his studies at Durham University.
  • Won 1998 English Premiership with Newcastle.
  • Made test debut off the bench against Ireland in April 1998, becoming England's second-youngest international at 18 years, 314 days.
  • First start was in 76-0 thrashing by Australia in 1998 "Tour to Hell".
  • Went on to play 91 tests for England and six for British and Irish Lions.
  • Total of 1,246 international points - second only to New Zealand flyhalf Dan Carter.
  • Scored six tries 162 conversions, 239 penalties and 36 drop goals for England.
  • Kicked winning drop goal in 2003 World Cup final against Australia, and played in England side that lost 2007 decider to South Africa.
  • Also appeared in 1999 and 2011 World Cups.
  • Helped England to a grand slam in the 2003 Six Nations Championship, and won three other Six Nations titles.
  • Voted 2003 International Player of the Year.
  • After the 2003 World Cup triumph, a series of injuries including a broken shoulder, haematoma in arm and medial knee ligament damage kept him out of the England side until the 2007 Six Nations.
  • Joined French club Toulon in 2009, leading them to 2013 Heineken Cup title, and Top 14 runners-up spot in 2012 and 2013.


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