Upon conquering large swathes of Asia, Persia and Egypt in 300 BC with his huge Macedon army, Alexander the Great was alleged to have openly wept in front of his generals under the fallacious assumption that there were “no more worlds to conquer”. Two dozen centuries later, there was a part of Jonny Wilkinson that could identify with Alexander III. Mixed with the elation and glory that followed that immortal drop goal in Australia in the winter of 2003 was a desperation that he could achieve no better. Such a colossal and glorious moment defined everything Jonny Wilkinson had worked his entire career towards. It is that feeling of emptiness, as with Alexander the Great, that gives measure to the dedication, hard work and brilliance of Jonny Wilkinson.
In the injury prone years that followed that game in 2003, Wilkinson openly admits to seeking counselling and help in coping with the emotional trough he found himself in and the loss of power over his career. Surprisingly perhaps, for a modern rugby player, he found solace in the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. He turned his enormous mental toughness to thoughts of living in the present only and attempting to block out distracting and worrying thoughts surrounding the future and his glorious past. It is a testament to this hard emotional graft that he overcame both the emotional and physical scars that saw him play on for club and country through to his retirement yesterday from International rugby.
Just ask Paul Grayson, Mike Catt, Charlie Hodgson, Andy Good and Toby Flood how easy it was to displace him
In an England career that started at the age of 19 he amassed 91 England caps and scored over 1100 points. He won six caps with the Lions and played for the Newcastle Falcons over 150 times, breaking numerous records as he went. All this alongside an injury record that would have made a mere mortal hang up his boots long ago. This alone is tribute to his incredible drive and devotion to his profession. Indeed it is this drive to constantly better himself that has forced his hand over retirement from International rugby. The RFU’s policy of not selecting England players who play rugby outside of England has seen Jonny have to choose between his International career or turning out for Toulon. Sensibly he has opted to turn his back on the England set-up, a stage upon which he surely has nothing more to prove.
They will miss him though. Although recently splitting fly-half duties with Toby Flood, he will be a huge loss in terms of inspiration, professionalism and reliability. In his prime Wilkinson was the best player on the planet bar none. A shining beacon of consistency whether at ten or in the centre, an almost robotically brilliant goal kicker, a fearsome and devastating tackler and a perfect role model both on and off the pitch. He was that unique brand of flawless icon. A Gary Lineker, a Tim Henman, clean and successful, slightly boring but a consummate professional at all times. You would never have found Jonny Wilkinson jumping off a reversing ferry in Auckland Harbour, for example, or throwing dwarves round a bar in Christchurch.
From his exceptional mental toughness, instilled in him as a youngster at Newcastle by Steve Black, to his awesome physical stature to his seminal kicking stance Jonny Wilkinson was a model rugby player. If you were cloning a perfect rugby player, JW in his prime would have been the mould by which all other International backs were made. Just ask Paul Grayson, Mike Catt, Charlie Hodgson, Andy Goode and Toby Flood how easy it was to displace him in the England team and you’ll get the measure of the man. For a man also known for his humility, modesty and shyness such gushing praise being heaped on him this week will be uncomfortable. Perhaps in time he will be able to reflect on his achievements in an England shirt in a favourable manner and relax into his rightful role as one of England’s greatest rugby players of all time. Somehow I doubt it, and for that he will remain to everyone else at least, Jonny the Great.
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