So he’s finally gone. Jonny Wilkinson, the fly-half magician who for so long has carried the weight of an entire rugby nation on his not inconsiderable shoulders, has finally bid farewell to the international game. From his debut as a bright eyed teenager in 1998 to his final bow against France earlier this year, he is a man who has always given his all and then more, standing almost alone at the top of his game. Among his contemporaries, only Dan Carter has come close to matching him. Carter probably shades him as an attacking fly-half, but few who have watched JW tackle or kick can doubt that he was the best defensive and kicking fly half the rugby world has seen for a long time.
The first time I remember seeing him play (and as I am the one writing this piece, it will be my memories that are most important!) was in the 2003 World Cup final win over Australia. I assume I had seen him earlier in the tournament and probably before then as well (he was five years into his career by that point and my dad does like watching his rugby) but it was that magical match that sticks in my memory the most. (I also seem to remember being hungover, but that’s ridiculous as I was only 14. I didn’t start getting hangovers until I got to this Scottish den of iniquity).
The tension was agonising, just watching the game see-saw this way and that like a drunk aiming his way from the Union to Empire made me bury my head in the arm of the couch and feel slightly ill. Barks of despair (Lote Tuqiri’s try, Elton Flatley’s 80th minute penalty, Flatley’s extra-time penalty) and howls of delight (Jason Robinson’s sliding try, every penalty coolly slotted by JW) had the cats scurrying for quiet corners of the house until finally, a mere 26 seconds from sudden death, that man stepped up and belted over the winning drop goal with his right, weaker foot.
I may have actually blacked out from the release of tension and joyous rush of blood to my head at that point. No-one else in the world (or so I believed) could have had the mental strength to do that. Most people I know get tense when they are told they have to make an un-graded presentation to half a dozen friendly people they know quite well. JW won the greatest prize in his sport in front of 80,000-odd unfriendly Australians baying their hatred and fear (and, to be fair, probably a bit of respect as well) with a literally last-minute kick. The man is unique.
He also led England to a second consecutive RWC final in 2007, four Six Nations trophies (including one grand slam) and played six matches for the British and Irish Lions. He has scored the most points ever for England (1,179), more points in world cups than any other player (277) and bashed over the most successful drop goals in tests (36). In the Six Nations he has the record for most points in a single match (35, Italy, 2001) and most in a single championship (89, 2001). He is second by just four points to Carter in terms of overall international points and second to Ronan O’Gara in the overall Six Nations points table by five. Without the many months and matches he missed through injury, he would undoubtedly stand at the top of every rugby record table going.
Regrettably the amazing strain he put on his body and mind hindered his career and he never scaled the heights he might have done. Considering just how high he did manage to fly, it is slightly frightening to think just how good he might have been had he been fit and healthy throughout.
But now it is time to say good bye, good bye to Jonny Wilkinson and Doris (the imaginary woman he kicks all of his goals to), good bye to world cup and Six Nation triumphs, good bye to tries and tackles, good bye to all that. We shall never forget you JW. And possibly even more satisfyingly, the Aussies will probably never be able to forgive you.