The end of a sporting career that has been blighted by injury is close to coming to an end. A victory over Saracens, at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, and lifting the Heineken Cup one day before his 35th birthday and a week before a Top 14 final against Castres is not a bad way to bring the curtain down on what has still been a remarkable career for England’s Jonny Wilkinson.
It has been a 17-year journey that has taken in 91 England caps, a record number of World Cup points, and a moment 11 years ago in Sydney that will live with English and Australian fans forever when his last-gasp drop goal gave England their first Rugby World Cup victory. It was a moment etched in time and one that will go down in sporting history. Ironically Wilkinson who is widely known as being a teetotaller, broke that habit after England lost to South Africa in the 2007 Rugby World Cup Final, a game in which he missed two drop goal attempts.
Sadly for English rugby Wilkinson’s not shirking responsibility on the pitch and willingness to tackle far more than many fly halves in World Rugby saw him frequently sidelined with injuries.
Yet the man who made his England debut coming off the bench, replacing Mike Catt, to play on the wing against Ireland at Twickenham on 4 April 1998 when he was only 18 years old claims he doesn’t deserve the respect he has been given.
“I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve been over-supported and given way too much respect,” Wilkinson has said. “I’ve been given an easy life compared to others who deserved more and haven’t had it. You are lucky enough to be around great teams and individuals like you have here (Toulon) and they are the guys who make the difference. But they are not the guys who get cheered at the end of the game like I did. If I sat back and thought about all the people who have given me too much in my life it would be emotionally quite difficult to take. I do a job that is my passion and who can be luckier than me? And guys go out of their way to cheer for you. It’s humbling.”
Wilkinson has always been humble. When England won the world cup and his team mates hit the town to celebrate, he quietly retired to his room at the hotel to contemplate what they had just achieved. Many players would have been criticised for not being part of the team, but his fellow players understood that was the way he was.
He has won pretty much all there is in Rugby, a Premiership with Newcastle Falcons as well as the Powergen Cup, The Heineken Cup with Toulon as well as four six nations championships, one a Grand Slam in 2003, and of course the World Cup. He has been the World’s leading points scorer but has been surpassed by All Black Dan Carter. Incredibly he is the only player to have scored points in two World Cup Finals and has the most World Cup points with 277.
As much as he has excelled on the pitch his behaviour off of it is one of the things that has made him the star he is. In France he conducts all of his interviews in French without an interpreter, having studied French at A-Level in school. His dedication to his craft, still practising his kicking on Christmas Day to ensure that his standards do not drop.
“I’ve tried to keep my feet on the ground because otherwise someone is going to realise I’m a bit of a fraud,” Wilkinson said after victory in Cardiff. If he truly believes that, he must be one of the greatest frauds to play the game.
Many opposition fans hated his consistency, but few hated Jonny Wilkinson the player and those who played with or against him, very few had anything negative to say about Jonny Wilkinson the man. He has been a great ambassador for the sport he is passionate about and as for being given too much respect, let the fans and history be the judge.