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, the 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 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, as he had for almost a decade. 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.
There were thrills attached to these achievements, although he was no one's idea of a thrill-a-minute player. If his skills, particularly in the goal-kicking and long passing departments, were exemplary (approaching state-of-the-art, according to many of the coaches who worked closely with him) the more abstract side of his game – the side that defined such imaginative, creative rugby-reinventing No 10s such as Jonathan Davies and Juan Martin Hernandez – was well hidden, if it existed at all. For every seven people who put Wilkinson at the very top of the tree, three felt he was a "laboratory" product: a piece of an outside-half unnaturally developed.
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, at least for a while, of the chronic neck condition that had first appeared early in his long spell at the Newcastle club and would later sideline him for months and seasons on end, he played with a freedom that belied his reputation as a buttoned-up 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 who, in their middle-Englandish way, worshipped the very ground he trod. Then the injuries really kicked in and on his return, Wilkinson struggled to find anything resembling the best of himself.
Never once, though, did he sell himself, or his colleagues, short: his standards of preparation were non-negotiable and he met those standards whenever he was inside the England camp. There is a funny story from the red-rose training get-together in Portugal ahead of the '07 World Cup. The Wasps centre Fraser Waters was returning to his room, ever so quietly, following a big night out when he was passed in the hotel lobby by Wilkinson, walking in the opposite direction with a bag of balls slung over his shoulder, en route to a crack-of-dawn kicking session. Waters? Not wanted on voyage. Wilkinson? Precious cargo.
Having made the final of the tournament – his return from injury provided Brian Ashton's hastily assembled England squad with a sense of direction – he felt disenchanted with elements of aspects of the Johnson regime that had been established in controversial circumstances in 2008. Indeed, he was close to calling time on his Test career in 2010 and had to be talked into completing another World Cup cycle.
Was it worth it? In his recently-published book, Wilkinson leaves the question hanging. There were certainly times during the recent tournament when he was annoyed, perhaps even disgusted, by the behaviour of certain fellow senior players – players who decided there were more things to rugby life than mere rugby. That notion never entered Wilkinson's head – not in his teens; still less in his 30s.
He may not have been the greatest outside-half, even of his own generation: Daniel Carter, the New Zealander, claims that 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. As a Test player of considerable stature, he demanded that rugby folk the world over bent the head and bowed the knee.
High five for Jonny: How Wilkinson became an England legend
1. Jonny will always be remembered for what he did in an England jersey in the 2003 World Cup final. Having performed exceptionally throughout the final against Australia in defence and attack, Wilkinson struck with an injury-time drop goal to secure a first global crown for England – in the Aussies' backyard
2. Four years later, and the semi-finals of the World Cup against arch-rivals France, again on their own turf. England had stumbled into the last four but a flawless tactical kicking and defensive display from their perfect 10 – as well as two penalties and a drop goal – safely put England in the final.
3. Had it not been for the World Cup victory, a win over New Zealand on their home territory could have taken the top spot in this list. In the 15-13 victory over New Zealand in 2003, Wilkinson kicked all of his side's points, with four penalties and a drop-goal. The fact England played with 13 men at times made it one of the great days.
4. Another outstanding display came in the 2003 World Cup semi-final as he successfully guided England past the French. Wilkinson scored all 24 of England's points in a 24-7 victory. From that moment on, he would always instill fear in the French national side.
5. A man-of-the-match display against Wales may seem like a fairly average occurrence in a career as glittering as Wilkinson's, but his performance in 2011, prior to the World Cup, was one to savour. He had lost his place as a starter to Toby Flood, but a supreme performance in this warm-up effectively earned him back his starting spot.
Here's Jonny! Life and times
Name Jonathan Peter Wilkinson (born 25 May, 1979)
Early life Turned down a place at Durham University to sign his first professional contract with Newcastle.
Rugby takes over Part of the 1997-98 side which went on to win the Premiership.
England calling Made international debut against Ireland on 4 April 1998 at the age of 18 – the youngest to play for England in the 20th century. Endured England's "Tour of Hell" to Australia in 1998 and was dropped to the bench for the quarter-final loss to South Africa in the 1999 World Cup.
World in his hands The highlight of his career came at the 2003 World Cup in Australia, where he kicked the winning drop goal in the final against the hosts. He was named IRB Player of the Year and BBC Sports Personality of the Year. He was also the youngest rugby player to be created MBE.
Injury hell His career was plagued with injuries up until the 2007 World Cup, where he guided the team to another final, although they fell short in the final against South Africa.
Points machine Despite being overtaken by Dan Carter as leading international scorer, Wilkinson still holds the record for the most points at Rugby World Cups with 277, and is also the only player to have scored in two separate World Cup finals.
2001 and 2004 Powergen Cups (all three with Newcastle). Belongs to select group who have scored more than 1,000 Premiership points (1,489).
Six Nations Winner in 2000, 2001, 2003 and 2011 (Grand Slam in 2003).
Rugby World Cup winner in 2003. Rugby World Cup Runner-up in 2007.
Wilkinson holds records for the most conversions by an England rugby player with 162, the most penalty goals with 239, and drop goals with 36 (also the international record for drop goals). He earned 91 caps for England, totting up 1,179 points. He also represented the British and Irish Lions six times, scoring 67 points for them.
What now? He is still playing for French side Toulon, despite calling time on his England career. Alex Shaw
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