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The end of an era as Jonny Wilkinson retires

The news that had long been known became official yesterday (Monday), every English rugby fan’s ultimate hero, Jonny Wilkinson, will be retiring at the end of the season.

He will be best remembered for that World Cup winning drop goal in 2003, it was the culmination of that fabled ’10,000 hours’ of practice (and quite possibly more in Wilkinson’s case), the deliverance of the ultimate prize under the most extreme pressure.

For that group of players, for English rugby supporters, that was the rugby moment, the greatest sporting day imaginable, and Wilkinson was the hero.

Perhaps it is my Scottish roots that either allow me, or prevent me, from seeing that moment with quite the same level of nostalgia, for as great a moment as that was, it was another game in that World Cup that I will always see as Wilkinson’s crowning glory in that tournament, the 24-7 dissection of France in the semi final.

Wilkinson scored all 24 of those points but it was the nine that came from drop goals that stand out. Wilkinson’s ability to turn field position into points, sucking the life out of the opposition as he kept the scoreboard ticking over with almost metronomic effect was his greatest strength.

In the early days of his career that was Wilkinson did, well, that and some of the most devastating tackling ever seen from an inside back. As a young 18 year old he helped Newcastle to the 1998 Premiership title, making his England debut that year too, the young tyro accumulating points at a scarcely believable rate as he began that journey to World Cup glory.

Then came the post 2003 injury nightmare, and to my mind the most impressive period of Wilkinson’s career. He was besieged by injury after injury missing fully four years of international rugby, I was fortunate enough to be at Twickenham for his comeback game against Scotland, almost predictably he scored 27 points and was named man of the match.

What did Wilkinson do with the time off? Many would wallow in self-pity, most might retire, not Wilkinson. He broadened his horizons, picking up new skills like playing the piano and speaking French, all the while keeping a steely focus on his ultimate goal – the return to rugby.

What a return it was as he guided England to a second successive World Cup final, in 2007, falling at the final hurdle to the excellent South Africans but impressing, and surprising, everyone with their run. As ever, the Wilkinson boot played its part.

With injury still troubling him Wilkinson took the decision in 2009 to move from the Newcastle Falcons to the South of France, Toulon specifically. Many felt that it was effectively a move into semi-retirement.

A bit of sun, less 2003 euphoria and nostalgia, and some of Mourad Boudjellas plentiful Euros, nobody begrudged Wilkinson any of that at all, but it certainly felt like semi-retirement. That was how the litany of stars that had already been assembled at the Stade Mayol had seemed to be treating it up until that point.

It is perhaps the crowning glory of Wilkinson’s club career that almost single handedly he changed that coasting culture. It had been said that his notoriously long and dedicated kicking practice was to blame for some of his injury problems, particularly the hernia, Wilkinson acknowledged as much and said he would slow down.

Nobody was buying that, and so the Toulon players were to find out as they were left open mouthed at the sheer amount of time and dedication that Wilkinson put into his practice. It began to rub off and soon the whole squad were at it, this rag-tag group of outstanding yet nomadic individuals became a team, bound by the work ethic and dedication of one Jonny Wilkinson.

It culminated in last year’s Heineken Cup triumph over Clermont Auvergne, following which Wilkinson was persuaded out of retirement by the two men whom one might think would have wanted rid of him, given their own ambitions for his number 10 shirt, Matt Giteau and Freddie Michalak. A sign of their respect for him.

This year though the retirement is official, there will be no turning back. Wilkinson has played arguably the finest rugby of his career in these twilight years at Toulon, certainly he plays with more freedom than he was ever truly able to in the white shirt of England.

Never one to seek the limelight, Wilkinson will have been delighted that the announcement of his retirement came on the same day that the media was obsessing over football matters, namely Ryan Giggs retirement and Louis Van Gaal’s appointment as Manchester United manager.

The chance for us all to revel in his achievements is not lost though. On Saturday Wilkinson has the chance to add a second Heineken Cup to his trophy cabinet as Toulon take on Saracens at the Millennium Stadium, before his final game on Saturday 31st May as his Toulon side face Castres in the Top 14 final.

A fitting way for the man to bow out.

With Brian O’Driscoll also retiring on the 31st, the end of May seems truly to represent the end of an era in European rugby. What an era it has been.

By Angus Savage

@AngusSavageXV

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