Wilkinson deserves perfect ending

Date published: June 2 2014

Jonny Wilkinson will always be remembered for that drop kick in 2003, but it's his legacy with Toulon that truly defines his class.

Jonny Wilkinson will always be remembered for that drop kick in 2003, but it's his legacy with Toulon that truly defines his class.

It's enormously comforting to have watched Wilkinson flourish as a player and leader in the South of France into his mid-30s.

When you consider the run of atrocious injuries he endured before making the move over the channel, it's incredible that he has lasted so long at all.

After multiple knee and shoulder operations, not to mention kidney damage, any sane person would throw in the towel. His hunger to play and ability to cope with so many setbacks, with the glare of the media watching his every step, is second to none. He is not just a superstar, but a bloody tough competitor.

Which is why the move to Toulon has been so satisfying. Success has not been instant. Wilkinson has watched as world-class operators including Tana Umaga, Victor Matfield and Sonny Bill Williams had their time, before the current crop who crowned their Heineken Cup success with the Top 14 title on Saturday gradually built up around him.

Had Castres not shocked everybody last season by snatching the Bouclier de Brennus from under Toulon's nose, perhaps Wilkinson would have decided enough was enough. Thank god it wasn't.

Money doesn't guarantee success. That takes unity, no egos – which is why Wilkinson has been the perfect rock at the core of Toulon's growth. The exemplification of modesty and hard work, as captain he has set the tone.

The adulation he has received isn't shocking or undeserved. It takes something truly special, someone, for God Save The Queen to be blared out in the Stade de France to celebrate France's former enemy, now loved as one of their own.

Many have helped him – Steve Black, Mike Catt, Dave Alred, Clive Woodward, Rob Andrew and others, all required as much to hone his abilities as to usher him off the training paddock when the 49th kick out of 50 missed the posts; not that he ever listened.

It would be wrong to describe Wilkinson as the most naturally gifted player to play the sport. It would be completely accurate to describe him as its most dedicated student, the epitome of commitment, who as a result mastered the game.

He redefined how fly-halves defend, tackling as well as the best flankers. He was not all about kicking for the posts – that chip over the top for his try against New Zealand in 2002 was a gem – but even over the last week he managed to knock over two drop goals when it mattered. His vision is of a rare ilk only possessed by the very best.

Of course there is that moment in Sydney, the incredible nerve to land the most important kick of his career under the greatest pressure having already missed three times. Wilkinson was a world champion at 23, his place in history secure.

There would be rare moments of light amidst the injury hell that followed, touring with the Lions to New Zealand and taking England to the World Cup Final in Paris. But Toulon was when the tide changed.

No matter how big the stars that have arrived at the Stade Mayol or their achievements beforehand, everyone respects him – lauds him even. Bryan Habana, Drew Mitchell, Matt Giteau – great talents all – have underlined what an honour it is to play alongside him. Mourad Boudjellal, Toulon's driven if not sometimes controversial owner, regards him as a saint, as of course do the fans. Seeing how Toulon fare without 'King Jonny' will be interesting.

Which is why the final moments after victory over Castres were so typically Jonny.

Followed by at least three television cameras around the Stade de France, as both sets of fans gave him a standing ovation, he had time for everybody. Every player from both teams was spoken to, every photo posed for, every autograph signed, interviews given in perfect French. Committed to the last, absorbing the moment. Seeing him with his wife Shelley and his parents in the stand, the relief was palpable.

Wilkinson walks off into the sunset with four Six Nations titles to his name, including one Grand Slam. There is the Rugby World Cup, a Premiership title with his beloved Newcastle, and now the Top 14 title and back-to-back Heineken Cups. 91 caps for England, five for the Lions, over a 1000 points in Test rugby. If there was ever any doubting his status in the sport because of a lack of silverware, that has now gone up in smoke.

To watch him retire is with a mixture of sadness but delight at his success over the last two seasons. He has not waned either, with his kicking against Saracens last week being truly of the highest order. In last year's Heineken Cup he practically dragged Toulon to glory in Dublin, not missing a single kick in the knockout stages.

Watching him and Brian O'Driscoll retire on the same day marks the end of an era. Rugby will miss them, but they have already given so much. Both are not just liked by millions but cherished.

O'Driscoll's true swansong came not with PRO12 success for Leinster, but by winning a second Six Nations in the Stade de France back in March with Ireland. How fitting that Wilkinson bowed out in the same arena.

Jonny can enjoy his life in Toulon and begin a coaching career that will no doubt take him again to the top. He has so much wisdom to offer, England will certainly call one day.

But for now, with the silverware and an incredible career behind him, he can rest. Well, or at least try to.

by Ben Coles