GAVIN MORTIMER pays tribute to Jonny Wilkinson, who capped off a magnificent career by leading Toulon to European Cup and Top 14 glory.
Among my clippings collected over the years, I have one from a regional English newspaper dated 11 November 1997. It lists the North of England U21 side to face the Midlands U21s that evening. A glance at the team sheet leaves one wondering what happened to the likes of Woof, Plevey and Ramus. Was that night the peak of their rugby careers? Then you look at the name of the flyhalf – J Wilkinson – and you think, how many among the hundred-odd crowd had even the faintest inkling that on that cold winter’s night they were in the presence of a man who would finish his career 17 years later as the greatest player produced by England.
Now, the whole hullabaloo about Wilkinson might appear odd to South Africans or indeed any nation that has always taken winning seriously. But look at it from an Englishman’s point of view: before Wilkinson, the English had a second-best mindset, in every sport, not just rugby.
Then came Wilkinson, a driven perfectionist who never settled for anything less than the best. Almost six years to the day after that appearance for the North U21 side, Wilkinson dropped the goal that won England the World Cup. The English had actually won something!
It took a while to get used to, but suddenly we English realised the taste of success was deliciously sweet. Two years later our cricketers won the Ashes for the first time in 19 years and at the 2008 Olympics the British team finished fourth in the medal table with 19 golds – 18 more than we’d managed at the 1996 Games.
It would be incorrect to attribute all this success to the ‘Wilkinson Influence’, but there’s no question that his burning desire to win, his utter dedication to the cause, rubbed off on the nation. The likes of David Beckham, Frank Bruno and Tim Henman were nice enough, but they were losers on the international stage.
Wilkinson knew that losing feeling well enough in the first months of his own Test career. A fleeting replacement against Ireland in the 1998 Five Nations, Wilkinson made his first start for England on that year’s tour to Australia. He’d just turned 19, a boy up against men.
The Wallabies didn’t just win, they annihilated England. Seventy-six unanswered points, the blackest day in English rugby. The humiliation broke several of the England players – four never represented their country again – and Wilkinson was singled out for criticism. ‘Paralysing first-night nerves’ was how one English paper described his performance, while another said the teenager endured ‘a horrible debut as he missed two easy penalties and made a host of tactical errors’.
England manager Clive Woodward ‘never forgot the look on Jonny’s shocked young face’ after the Australian game. Like the rest of us, the then England coach thought the teenager was psychologically shot. But at the time, none of us knew the depth of his mental strength.
‘I regard myself as completely obsessive and Jonny was the same,’ said Woodward. ‘Jonny questioned everything. He asked “Why?” more than any other player I worked with.’
Wilkinson knew he was far from being the most talented player of his generation. He never had Dan Carter’s pace, or Frédéric Michalak’s eye for a gap, but what he did have was the strongest of minds. He turned himself into the toughest tackling flyhalf the game had ever seen, changing our perception of what was expected of a 10 in defence, and through hour after hour of practice he became for a while the leading point-scorer in Test rugby, finishing with a total of 1,246, of which 108 came from drop goals, including that one in the last minute of extra time of the 2003 World Cup final. He broke Australian hearts with the kick, as he shattered the hearts of everyone in Toulon when he retired at the end of this season.
I had the good fortune to be in the Stade de France on 31 May as Wilkinson, cool and clinical in the maelstrom of emotion that threatened to overwhelm Toulon, steered his side to their first Top 14 title in 22 years with 15 points in their 18-10 victory over Castres. It also secured Toulon a European and domestic double, and crowned them the indisputable kings of northern hemisphere rugby.
Seconds after the final whistle the Stade de France sound system blasted out ‘God Save the Queen’. It was one of the strangest – and most magnificent – moments of my sporting life, to be joined in my national anthem by 20 000 French men and women.
But that’s the ‘Wilkinson Influence’. As Woodward said: ‘His professionalism, his character and everything he stood for in the game rubbed off on all of us. Thank you, Jonny.’
NUMBERS THAT MATTER
17 – The number of years Wilkinson spent playing professional rugby.
18:314 – Wilkinson’s age, in years and days, when he made his Test debut for England, against Ireland at Twickenham in 1998, which made him England’s second youngest debutant (Colin Laird was 18 years and 124 days old when he played his first match in 1927).
97 – The number of Tests Wilkinson played (91 for England and six for the Lions).
1,246 – The number of Test points he scored, via seven tries, 169 conversions, 255 penalties and 36 drop goals (only Dan Carter, with 1,442, has scored more).
36 – The record number of Test drop goals he kicked, eight more than the next best, Hugo Porta.
4 – The number of World Cups he participated in (1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011).
277 – The record number of World Cup points he scored, in 19 matches (a try, 28 conversions, 58 penalties and 14 drop goals).
5 – The number of trophies he won with England – the World Cup in 2003 and the Six Nations in 2000, 2001, 2003 (Grand Slam) and 2011.
20 – The minute of extra time in the 2003 World Cup final in which he kicked a drop goal to give England a 20-17 lead.
1,169 – The number of days between Wilkinson’s appearance in the 2003 World Cup final and his next appearance for England, against Scotland at Twickenham in the 2007 Six Nations, because of knee ligament, arm, shoulder and kidney problems.
2 – The number of trophies Wilkinson won with Newcastle (the English Premiership in 1998-99 and the Anglo-Welsh Cup in 2001-02).
3 – The number of trophies he won with Toulon (the European Cup in 2012-13 and 2013-14 and the Top 14 in 2013-14).
141 – The number of matches he played for Toulon from 2009 to 2014.
2,055 – The number of points he scored for Toulon.
56,000 – Wilkinson’s monthly salary, in euros, during his last year with Toulon, making him the world’s highest paid rugby player.
– This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of SA Rugby magazine