All good things must come to an end
December 12, 2011
Jonny Wilkinson slots the winning drop goal in England's memorable 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph over Australia © Getty Images
Jonny Wilkinson's decision to retire from international rugby brings the curtain down on the Test career of arguably England's greatest ever player.
Forever remembered as the man who kicked England to Rugby World Cup glory in 2003, his contribution to the game extends far beyond that sweetly-struck drop goal on a famous night in Sydney eight years ago. And his record 1,246 Test points - capped by a 55th minute conversion during his side's recent World Cup quarter-final defeat to France - may illustrate his value on the field but says nothing of the standards he set off it.
He inspired a generation of players, young and old, to take up the game or dust off their boots and while that feel-good factor may not have lasted there is no doubt who gave the grassroots game that much-needed lift. At the same time he provided a blueprint for his peers to follow and his influence is set to be felt long after he has exited the international stage.
As soon as his unfavoured right foot sent the ball between the posts to break Australia's hearts you sensed it would never get any better for the Surrey-born playmaker and while that is largely true of a career blighted by injury after injury, it should not disguise the fact that he set the bar for English fly-halves for over a decade with an unstinting quest for perfection.
Wilkinson emerged onto the international scene in 1998 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old and would later be one of those scarred by the infamous 'Tour of Hell' that saw England handed a rugby lesson by each of their southern hemisphere rivals. But as is Wilkinson's way, he drew on the experience to re-write the textbook for No.10s with an unrivalled dedication to his craft, an unprecedented physicality and unequalled kicking prowess.
It was no surprise that a willingness to put his body on the line and tackle like a blindside flanker took its toll but his trademark work ethic enabled him to battle back from endless setbacks that may well have ended other less-driven careers.
Injuries robbed England of his services for three and half years, with his shoulder, knee, arm, appendix, groin and kidney all suffering, but he still enters international retirement with 91 England caps. With a little more luck on the fitness front he would be calling time on his international career as the most capped player of all time but those injuries leave him short of the century since passed by many and second to Jason Leonard in England's all-time stats.
A second World Cup Final appearance followed in 2007 and he would later lay claim to all-time Test points record - an honour that has since passed to All Blacks fly-half Dan Carter - while it is rather fitting that he holds the record for drop goals having landed the most dramatic field goal in the sport's history.
Then there are the four Six Nations titles including a Grand Slam as part of a vintage year in 2003 that also saw him land the International Rugby Board Player of the Year award. His talents were utilised by the Lions in 2001 and 2005 and he also had the honour of captaining his country on two occasions. But it is clear that Wilkinson has never been driven by such accolades, for him, it has always been about being the best he could be and in turn lifting the team to those same standards.
His England career has brought so many rewards, both on and off the field, with the World Cup victory the obvious highlight and one that is etched into the memory of every fan. That moment propelled him to worldwide fame but the trappings that came with it could not undermine his commitment to his profession and on-going desire to improve.
Wilkinson's decision to cut his ties with Premiership side Newcastle in 2009 after 11 formative yet injury-plagued years and head for Toulon in the south of France threatened to bring a premature end to his international career. But having found a new lease of life and a rich vein of form he simply could not be ignored by an England set-up that supposedly frowned on individuals who had opted to play overseas.
But let us not be too downcast as Wilkinson's career is not over. At 32, he will continue to play in the Top 14 where he has made good on the sizeable investment made by Toulon boss Mourad Boudjellal and in doing so has made many more friends who cannot help but be impressed by his industry and his attempts to integrate into his new home.
His decision to bow out of the international stage, after a World Cup where he was clearly not at his best, means that only one member of the side that secured the World Cup in 2003 remains in the England mix - centre Mike Tindall. But with the wind of change blowing, we may soon be drawing the line under another international career and a magical chapter in the history of English rugby - but that is for another day.
The praise is already flooding in for Wilkinson from those who feel privileged to have played alongside him and that sentiment also extends to those who have been able to witness his remarkable achievements and chart his rollercoaster of a Test career. Thanks for the memories.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.