- Jonny Wilkinson retires from professional rugby
- Watch Lancaster, Catt, Rowntree and Dallaglio pay tribute
As far as compliments go, a rendition of God Save the Queen from a raucous Stade de France is fairly special. Even for Jonny Wilkinson, who spent the entirety of his 17-year professional career collecting superlatives, those incredible scenes on Saturday night as Toulon clinched the Top 14 title epitomised the fly half’s universal popularity and respect.
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Fittingly, Wilkinson accumulated 15 points to mark his final match before retirement, condemning Castres to an 18-10 defeat and avenging his team’s loss to the same opponents at the same stage last season.
Following an equally impressive Heineken Cup triumph over Saracens in Cardiff the previous week, it capped a wonderful, silverware-drenched end to the 35-year-old’s time as a player.
Of course, the right-footed drop goal that won the 2003 Rugby World Cup is the defining image of Wilkinson for fans on these shores. Those precious three points were among 1179 for England in 91 Tests, while he scored 67 more on two British and Irish Lions tours.
A golden autumn to his career in the south of France was foreshadowed by a horrific run of injuries in the years following the World Cup, but Wilkinson’s longevity won out and he now bows out on his own terms.
Indeed, as current England Head Coach Stuart Lancaster says, his most pertinent legacy is a unique, unflinching, all-consuming dedication to the sport that served as a genuine inspiration to everyone.
Former international teammate Lawrence Dallaglio, another mainstay of Clive Woodward’s world-conquering outfit, highlights those attributes.
“His greatest quality is his attitude and work ethic,” he explains. “I thought I was quite obsessed until I met Jonny.
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“There are no guarantees in life, but his left boot felt like one at times. International rugby isn’t always pretty. Sometimes you have to chip away at the opposition and play in the right areas of the field.
“With someone like Jonny in the team, you had every chance of doing exactly that.”
Mike Catt, another England colleague who stood alongside Wilkinson in midfield on many occasions, remembers the former Newcastle Falcon’s adaptability and instinct – which allowed him to influence the course of even the tightest contests.
Finally, Graham Rowntree looks back on playing in one of Wilkinson’s earliest Tests – a 76-0 reverse in Australia when he was just 19.
Having witnessed Wilkinson hone his metronomic left boot over hours on the training field then, as well as while working as England Forwards Coach, Rowntree is full of the highest praise.
“He put as much work into his attacking and running game as he did his kicking game. As a fellow pro and a player you could only marvel at that and respect it.
“He quickly gained everyone’s respect from his intensity at training and willingness to learn. He’s a giver as well – good for the tight forwards in terms of driving them around the field. You won’t find a better player in an England shirt ever.”