English rugby is divided into two camps: those who consider Jonny Wilkinson to be the best player ever to pull on the white jersey – pretty much the only player worth watching, in fact – and those more realistic souls who decided long ago that the outside-half was not quite the genius his many thousands of supporters made him out to be. There is no disputing this much, however: no individual ever gave more of himself to, or prepared more thoroughly for, life in the international arena.
Wilkinson confirmed his retirement from Test rugby yesterday, as everyone not looking at things through red rose-tinted spectacles knew he would the moment he extended his contract with the French Top 14 club Toulon, thereby deliberately putting himself outside the new guidelines covering England selection that came into force after this year's World Cup in New Zealand. Even had he hoped that his lords and masters at Twickenham would relent, would make him a special case in gratitude for services rendered, his performance in All Black country in the autumn would have put paid to that idea. During the global gathering, he was patently a player in decline. Hell, he could not even kick his goals.
Yet only the hardest-hearted critic could dwell on his failures as an international midfielder. Wilkinson was, in his pomp, th world's best marksman, the world's most dependable defender in the heavily congested and wholly perilous No 10 channel, the most dedicated trainer, the most professional of professional sportsmen. When commitment and desire were measured, he was rugby's Steve Redgrave, the union's game's A P McCoy.
If his fourth and last World Cup campaign, under Martin Johnson's managership, was a let-down – far more so than his first under Clive Woodward in 1999, when he was mysteriously dropped from the England starting line-up on the morning of the quarter-final against South Africa, having been very definitely in it the night before – his efforts in the 2003 and 2007 tournaments were remarkable in many ways. On neither occasion was he at his absolute best: in '03 he had rough nights against both Samoa and Wales; in '07 he suddenly found he could not bend the ball to his will from the kicking tee. But he dropped the famous "wrong-footed" goal to win the title in Sydney and landed the shots that helped his country to a second successive final in Paris.
But there was a point in his Test career, in the autumn of 2002, when he was undeniably the outstanding No 10 in the sport. Free of the chronic neck condition that had first appeared at Newcastle and would later sideline him for months and seasons on end, he played with a freedom that belied his reputation as a purveyor of percentage rugby.
It did not last. A year later, at the World Cup in Wallaby land, his performances were a long way short of those he had inflicted so gloriously on the Springboks and the All Blacks before an adoring audience at Twickenham. Then the injuries really kicked in and on his return, Wilkinson struggled to find anything resembling the best of himself.
He may not have been the greatest outside-half, even of his own generation: Daniel Carter, the New Zealander, claims that particular accolade. But no one came close to squeezing so much from his God-given talent, and for that alone, Wilkinson is worthy of undying regard.Reuse content