Heartfelt tribute to an English sporting hero

Honour ... Jonny Wilkinson with his MBE at Buckingham Palace Honour ... Jonny Wilkinson with his MBE at Buckingham Palace

RUGBY legend Jonny Wilkinson has announced he is retiring from the international game. His drop goal in the World Cup final against Australia in 2003 won England the trophy and Jonny an army of fans.

And it wasn’t just the power and precision of his kicks that turned heads. The unassuming hero will also be sorely missed by his many female admirers. Here a top sports writer, who knows Jonny well, reflects on his unique contribution to the sport.

WITH the body of an action man, the face of an angel and bursting with talent, life was never going to be a slow, dull affair for Jonny Wilkinson.

But when the shy 18-year-old first played for England back in 1998, becoming the youngest man to do so for 70 years, he can have had no idea of the colossal impact he would have on the game.

Now, 91 England caps and nearly 14 years later, as Wilkinson retires from international rugby it’s fair to say that he transformed the sport of rugby union — bringing in thousands of new fans as one of the most influential, brilliant and popular players of his generation.

It wasn’t just Wilkinson’s rugby that made him stand out from the crowd and it certainly wasn’t just his kicking.

It was the way in which the 32-year-old conducted himself. He cornered the market (not a crowded one, admittedly) in being a well-behaved sportsman. He hated drinking, hated smoking and liked to get to bed early and train hard.

In so many respects, he represented what we wished all our sportsmen were like.

His beauty, charm, glamour, decency and inner strength were the antithesis of the drunken, ill-educated yobbishness we feared many had become.

And there was something gloriously fairytale-like about all that hard work and dedication paying off on a balmy night in Sydney in 2003, when he kicked the drop goal that won the World Cup for England.

With his unfavoured right foot, under unimaginable pressure and with the world watching, he belted the ball and became a sporting icon — a poster boy for a sport and for the whole country.

This gorgeous man who loved his mum and looked like he’d just arrived for choir practice had triumphed.

National hero ... his drop goal wins England the 2003 Rugby World Cup
National hero ... his drop goal wins England the 2003 Rugby World Cup

Men cheered and women everywhere fell head over heels in love. I remember going into the hairdressers in 2003 and the stylist asked me whether I was doing anything nice at the weekend.

“I’m going to Australia for the Rugby World Cup,” I replied, proudly. “Oh,” she said.

She’d clearly never heard of the Rugby World Cup. Perhaps she’d never heard of rugby. But when I got back from Australia, it was a different story. I walked past the hairdressers and heard frantic clip-clopping behind me as she rushed out on her sky-high stilettos, shouting for me to stop.

“How was the World Cup?” she asked, wide-eyed with wonder. “Did you get to meet Jonny Wilkinson? I’ve got a poster of him at home.”

Perhaps it doesn’t matter that Jonny Wilkinson attracted thousands of new fans to the sport, but then — perhaps it does.

Schoolchildren, teachers and mothers were suddenly absorbed in it. Numbers in rugby club youth sections swelled and they all wanted to be Jonny.

More people took up coaching and refereeing and the sport grew. Jonny did that.

Rugby is a team game, but the role that Wilkinson played in taking the sport to a wider audience, a new audience, transformed the sport for ever.

And yet Wilkinson never had any real idea of the massive impact he had made on that gorgeous night in Sydney.

When he arrived back at Heathrow Airport, he was astonished that a crowd had turned out to welcome him.

The other players crawled off the plane looking as if they’d been drinking all the way from the southern hemisphere (they had!), Jonny skipped behind them looking as if he’d been eating yogurt and munching on carrots all the way.

Clive Woodward asked Wilkinson how he was planning to get back to Newcastle. “On the train.

“No, you’re not,” said Woodward, putting him into a car. “You can’t go on the train, you’ll be mobbed. You’re the most famous person in England.”
While the country was celebrating what Wilkinson had achieved in 2003, the man himself was already looking forward and planning what he would do next.

He refused to drink alcohol in the changing room after the match, saying he needed to stay in control, and began chatting to the fitness expert, Dave Reddin, about how he might improve his speed before the next game.

“Can’t you relax? You’ve just won the World Cup,” said Reddin.

“No,” said Wilkinson. “That kick wasn’t straight. I need to keep working.”

England’s triumph turned Wilkinson into rugby’s answer to David Beckham, and the football star moved quickly to associate himself with Wilkinson.

“When Jonny plays well and scores a lot of points, it seems that England really raise their game,” said Beckham.

“I think Jonny plays in a similar way to me because I think his position is a very similar position to a midfielder in football. We’re quite alike,” added Becks.

In many ways there are similarities between the two golden boys of English sport — with their head-turning good looks and natural talent.

They made their international debuts within a year and a half of each other and went on to have towering presences in their respective sports. But Beckham never achieved everything it’s possible to achieve in an England shirt — Wilkinson did.

There’s a story that Beckham called Wilkinson to congratulate him on the World Cup victory, but Wilkinson never returned the call.

He was never moved by celebrity status, he never had his head turned by the people who crowded round him, hoping some of his magic would rub off on them.

I bet he never forgot to call his mum — but he forgot to return the call to David Beckham.

Wilkinson once rang me when I was covering the Wimbledon championships and said when he realised I was there: “I’d love to go to Wimbledon.”

He had no idea how much Wimbledon would love to have him. I talked to a few people at the championships and they organised tickets for the next day and put him in the Royal Box the day after.

They were delighted to have him — but Wilkinson didn’t know why.

One of the loveliest things about him, and there are many lovely things, is that he never quite saw himself as we see him. He saw his failings, not his strengths. There is no ego, no vanity or flightiness.

He has no idea how much he is loved, respected and admired. Sometimes this made him prone to depression, tough on himself and single-minded in his training, but it also made him grounded, decent and extremely likeable.

I remember interviewing Wilkinson soon after he started playing for England and he said: “I don’t ever want to be the sort of person who looks back and says, ‘I had a chance but I didn’t take it.’ I don’t want to let anyone down. I can’t bear the thought of letting my family down.”

As he walks off the international stage, quietly and with the same dignity that he stepped on to it 13 years ago, there’s no doubt he has done this.

He has grasped every chance he’s had and made the most of every moment. He never let anyone down. It’s hard to think how anyone could have made their family, their team-mates or their country prouder.

Let’s hope that, in retirement, he can take a step back and realise how much he’s done, and how special his contribution has been.