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Sun Apr 20 12:49:26 SAST 2014

Wilkinson was England's first true pro

Julian Guyer, Sapa-AFP | 13 December, 2011 09:230 Comments
(FILE PHOTO) England Fly-Half Jonny Wilkinson Announces His Retirement From International Rugby
Jonny Wilkinson of England in action during the England IRB Rugby World Cup 2011 captain's run at Otago Stadium on September 9, 2011 in Dunedin, New Zealand. 32-year-old Wilkinson announced his retirement from International Rugby and remains the country's leading all time scorer with 1,179 points
Image by: Shaun Botterill / Getty Images

It was typically English that the devotion to constant improvement which allowed fly-half Jonny Wilkinson to kick a World Cup winning drop-goal inspired as much concern as it did admiration.

Had Wilkinson, who announced his retirement from international rugby on Monday, been a concert violinist, few would have thought it odd he spent several hours every day honing his craft, often in the company of a specialist coach.

But professionalism in rugby union was in its infancy when Wilkinson made his debut for Newcastle and his method was at odds with the cult of the ’gifted amateur’ that still holds considerable  sway in English public life in general.

Even by the standards of his fellow professionals, there seemed something excessive in the context of a team sport about Wilkinson’s repeated need for extra training.

Indeed it reached the point during the 2003 World Cup where one reporter all but asked Wilkinson if he felt he was in danger of cracking up.

Yet weeks later the predominantly left-footed No 10, kicked a right-footed drop goal in the dying seconds of extra time that sealed a World Cup final win over hosts Australia in Sydney that secured Wilkinson’s sporting immortality.

Wilkinson was never the kind of running 10 such as Australia’s Mark Ella or the great 1970s Welsh duo of Barry John and Phil Bennett the memory of whose play leads to purple prose and wistful memories.

But what he was, rather as his then-Newcastle coach Rob Andrew had once been, an ideal fit in a particular England team.

Playing behind a powerful pack well marshalled by World Cup-winning skipper Martin Johnson, and with the likes of Will Greenwood alongside him, Wilkinson’s all-round kicking game, and his distribution, allowed England to capitalise on their possession.

And in an era where defence was as important as never before, Wilkinson had an unmatched ability among fly-halves to make thumping tackles, with one bone-crushing effort on France wing Emile Ntamack during the 2000 Six Nations sure to live long in the memory.

Sadly for Wilkinson, and for England, the cost of his approach came with a series of injuries that meant he would never again come  close to that wondrous night against the Wallabies.

It would have been asking a lot had Wilkinson remained fit. As it was a succession of injuries meant it was not until nearly four years later that Wilkinson played for England again.

It says something about Wilkinson’s mental resolve that he ended  his Test career with a record of 97 caps (91 for England and six for the Lions), 1,246 Test points and a World Cup record haul of 277 points.

Having started as a centre during Newcastle’s 1997/98 English title winning season, he was switched to fly-half and capped by England as an 18-year-old against Ireland.

Wilkinson survived England’s controversial ’Tour of Hell’, a series of wretchedly lopsided defeats by the Tri-Nations and by the  time he headed to Australia for the 2003 World Cup was probably the  world’s best fly-half.

England just did enough and Wilkinson needed some playmaking assistance from Mike Catt in a tricky quarter-final against Wales.

His injuries gave England fly-half chances to Charlie Hodgson, Danny Cipriani and Toby Flood but none could make the position their own.

In recent years Wilkinson became a byword for England’s inability to unlock top-class defences — he was never quite as bad a passer as some made out — and the team’s problems in attack went  deeper than one man.

And for all Wilkinson said his off-field approach was not for everyone, it was surely better than the alcohol-fuelled ’old school’ incidents that overshadowed his Test finale during England’s wretched show at the World Cup in New Zealand.

Wilkinson’s Test retirement statement acknowledged he’d “never truly be satisfied!” Sadly for England, some of his teammates were all too pleased with themselves.

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