England's perfect 10 retires from rugby

Jonny Wilkinson's World Cup winning kick that sent him into the history books

Jonny Wilkinson's World Cup winning kick that sent him into the history books

First published in Sport
Last updated

HE will always be remembered for THAT drop-goal on a Saturday night in Sydney - but Jonny Wilkinson's rugby legacy is all-embracing.

It just happened to be the kick that saw England crowned 2003 world champions and ensured iconic status for the team he graced as its tactical controller, computer hard-drive and points-scoring machine.

But Wilkinson was so much more than that.

He defined professionalism, not only in a rugby sense, but in a much wider sporting context as he set an inspired example for others to follow.

His devotion to training and practice sessions - Christmas Day included - underlined how no stone was left unturned in Wilkinson's relentless pursuit of perfection.

Of course, such were his colossal standards, it was impossible for him to attain that feeling of total satisfaction and achievement of complete sporting accomplishment.

But one day, when he sits back and reflects on it all, he can be content in the knowledge that there will be few - if any - in the game who had more memorable careers.

A World Cup winner, a Six Nations Championship winner, a Premiership winner, a Heineken Cup winner, 91 England caps, six British and Irish Lions Tests, Wilkinson kept churning out one world-class performance and one world-class feat after another, despite suffering way more than his fair share of injury setbacks.

The Northern Echo:

He scored 1,246 Test match points - 277 of those in World Cups, including the drop-goal strike off his less-favoured right boot that meant England conquered planet rugby - and when he steps away after the French Top 14 final between Toulon and Castres later ths month, he can walk taller than any other player in rugby union's 19-year professional existence.

Wilkinson's talent had been clear to see from the moment he emerged at Newcastle during their 1997-98 Premiership title success, and he was quickly capped as an 18-year-old against Ireland during that season's Six Nations.

He survived the stern examination of England's 'Tour of Hell' to Australia and New Zealand that summer, and was one of just a handful of players who turned the chastening experience into a positive, vowing to return to face the southern hemisphere heavyweights and winning in their back yard.

While so many observers chose to look at only Wilkinson the kicker - just look at how many players copied his crouched goal-kicking preparation - during his peak years he was also a superb distributor and undeniably the toughest-tackling fly-half in the business.

Watching his famed hit on Emile Ntamack during the 2000 Six Nations still makes you wince.

That autumn he helped England to consecutive wins over New Zealand - against whom he scored a magnificent individual try - Australia and South Africa before then helming the 2003 Six Nations Grand Slam with a sensational performance in the crushing win over Ireland in the Dublin decider.

Summer wins over the All Blacks and Wallabies followed, but by the time the World Cup got under way Down Under, England appeared to be a side who had peaked too early.

Wilkinson was not in the best of form during the tournament, enduring a torrid time against Wales in the quarter-final until Mike Catt was summoned from the bench to lend support, but he remained deadly accurate in front of the posts and his vital strike in the final was the very embodiment of Sir Clive Woodward's 'TCUP' (Thinking Correctly Under Pressure) motto.

But just when he appeared set to dominate the rugby landscape, Wilkinson was to suffer an appalling run of injuries.

Problems with his shoulder, knee, arm, appendix, groin and kidney ruled him out of England action, and his only international appearances between November 2003 and February 2007 were on the ill-fated Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005.

Those injuries arguably robbed Wilkinson of what could have been his best years as an international player, but his career was also unquestionably prolonged as a result, and he will retire in two weeks' time at the age of 35 when Toulon target French title glory.

And as the final day approaches of a truly spectacular career enjoyed by a true sporting colossus, there is only accurate assessment that can be reached.

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