Rugby World Cup
Simon Barnes' Rugby World Cup heroes: Jonny Wilkinson
Simon Barnes
September 16, 2015
Who will win the Rugby World Cup?

He missed. Three times. That's what most people forget: and so we remember Jonny Surefoot, the man who never missed. But he did miss sometimes, because he was a man and not a legendary hero, and three times, in the World Cup Final of 2003 between England and Australia in Sydney, Jonny Wilkinson missed with drop-goal attempts.

It was only when a few seconds remained on the clock, seconds in extra-time, after which the World Cup would have been settled by an absurd kicking competition, one that would have made a mockery of England's domination of world rugby in the previous 12 months, that Wilkinson found his range and his moment.

And that was the beauty of it.

I've always liked to compare Wilkinson with David Beckham, because what unites them is greater than the vast acreage of nonsense that divides them.

Most of us have played with a ball, alone, against a wall or garage door. And said to ourselves: one kick. One kick to save the world. One kick and everything is all right: but get it wrong and it's Armageddon. And we take the run-up and lo! We have saved the world. Again.

Beckham had that kick to make in England's last World Cup qualifying match against Greece in 2002, the one that took them to the finals. He kept missing too -- until it came to the very last chance. And Wilkinson, with the score at 17-17 in the World Cup Final, took the pass and made sweet connection with the ball - on the wrong foot, his weaker right -- and sent the ball tumbling in a rainbow arc between the posts to save the world once again.

I was there in the stadium for that breathtaking bit of sport and it was one of the greatest sporting moments I have experienced, all mixed up with the joys of partisanship. Wilkinson was at the heart of everything that brilliant England side did in that extraordinary 12-month period. He kicked all 15 points when England beat New Zealand in 2002.

At the World Cup he scored 20 of the 25 points England scored against South Africa. After that, one Australia paper ran a picture of Wilkinson with the headline: "Is that all you've got?" Even if it had been, it would have been enough. Wilkinson scored 23 of the 28 that England scored against Wales in the quarter-finals, and all 24 of the points they scored against France in the semi. He also scored 15 of the 20 points England needed to win the final.

Jonny Wilkinson
Jonny Wilkinson© (Photo by Tom Jenkins/Getty Images)

Wilkinson was so accurate that he altered the way the opposition played. Players daren't commit an offence in their own half, because it would cost three points every time. So England constantly faced opponents who were holding back: and that made all the difference. Wilkinson wasn't just the finisher: he was the controller.

He'd be a great sporting hero if the story had stopped in 2003, but it didn't. Wilkinson went on to become sport's Job. He suffered an impossible series of injuries: and yet he never, for one second, lost the faith. Two weeks after the World Cup he had a broken shoulder. He then had a haematoma on his arm. He tore a medial knee ligament. He tore it again. He had appendicitis. He tore another knee ligament. And just for luck, he also suffered a lacerated kidney.

Such an appalling succession of bad luck would have broken the spirit of most, but Wilkinson never stopped hoping, never let up for a second on the rehab, never gave up for an instant on the athlete's diet and the athlete's lifestyle. No setback ever seemed to sicken him.

And he almost did it again. He was that good. At the World Cup in France in 2007, he was injured again, but came into the team after the first two pool matches. He then got injured. But once again he came back: and in the quarter-final he scored all the points as England shockingly beat Australia 12-10.

England then beat France in the semi-finals, thanks to a last-minute drop-goal; the attentive reader will probably be able to guess who scored it. Alas, South Africa were too strong in the final, but to get there at all was an astonishing achievement for an inadequate England team.

After that, Wilkinson went to have a third sporting career. After Jonny Surefoot and Rehab Man, we have Jonny Unbound. He played for Toulon as an essentially creative player. He found new talents and a new way of playing, an artistry that would never have been possible for him in England. It was a glorious coda, satisfying in a deeply personal way - a glorious up-yours to all those non-English observers who criticised him for being a one-dimensional kicking machine. Envy does shocking things to a person's judgement.

Two important things remain from Wilkinson's career. The first is the glory years of 2002-2003, in which England were unbeatable and Wilkinson was invariably the difference between victory and defeat, especially in that last glorious kick of the World Cup Final.

The second is in Wilkinson's ego. What ego, I hear you ask: and you're right to do so. Wilkinson was that rare thing, a sports star without an ego: an individual stand-out in a team game who rejected any shred of personal glory. There was something of Zen-like purity in the way Wilkinson saw the world as a player: and not exactly by coincidence, he developed a fascination with Buddhism during his sporting career.

He was a player who hated the limelight but accepted the responsibility. He never pushed himself forward, but never stood back when there was a job to do.

So let's savour one last look at Jonny in his pomp. Motionless. Knees bent. Arse stuck out. Arms out before him, forming an isosceles triangle with his shoulders. Hands clasped. Head down. Eyes on the ball. Then the head cocked up to the target. Back down again. Up. Down. Up. Down. And then the rhythmic arc of the run-up, the languid swing of the left leg, the sweet connection with the sweetest spot on the rugby ball: and once again the ball end-over-ending between the posts.

Again and again and again. Especially when it really, really mattered. That was Wilkinson.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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