Jonny Wilkinson and his metronomic kicking ability are globally renowned, but the curtain will finally come down on the World Cup-winning fly-half’s career at the conclusion of the season.
From Newcastle to Toulon, via Australia, Wilkinson has become an icon of English sport and global rugby through a career which has seen him claim four Six Nations titles, earn British and Irish Lions honours twice and kick England to glory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
Wilkinson will now draw to a close his 17-year career with Heineken Cup and Top 14 finals in successive weeks, and how fitting it would it be should he bow out with the elusive domestic and European double he has sought so dearly since he moved to Toulon.
He has 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. A World Cup winner, a Six Nations Championship winner four times over, 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.
Here Sky Sports sifts through the of highlights a stellar career.
After graduating from the School of Rugby, a fresh-faced Wilkinson fought off competition from international veterans Inga Tuigamala and Alan Tait to become a fixture in the Newcastle side which went on to claim the 1997-98 Allied Dunbar Premiership title. Such was his rise to prominence in the top flight, he become the second youngest player to feature on the wing for England as he made his international debut at 18-years-old.
Wilkinson came off the bench to replace Mike Catt in England’s showdown with Ireland at Twickenham before being selected to what become known as the ‘Tour of Hell’. England travelled to the southern hemisphere and endured gut-wrenching defeats to both New Zealand and Australia, who triumphed 76-0, before Wilkinson returned to Kingston Park to replace fellow international Rob Andrew as fly-half and goal-kicker.
After a successful start to the season with Newcastle, Wilkinson became a permanent fixture in the England team for the 1999 Five Nations Championship, in which England were narrowly edged out by Scotland on points difference. The Surrey-born back almost doubled his medal tally in his second domestic season, with the Falcons losing to London Wasps in the Anglo-Welsh Cup final.
England head coach Clive Woodward was impressed by what he had seen in the Five Nations Championship, enough so to trust Wilkinson with the No 10 jersey for their 1999 World Cup campaign. Wilkinson started in key pool matches against Italy and New Zealand as well as a quarter-final play-off with Fiji.
Despite featuring in the successful play-off, Wilkinson was omitted from the quarter-final line-up in favour of Paul Grayson as England bowed out in Paris at the hands of South Africa. Woodward refused to explain his selection policy, but opted to restore Wilkinson for the inaugural Six Nations Championship in 2000.
Wilkinson started all five matches as England lifted the European crown, but missed out on the Grand Slam after losing their final game to Scotland in a monsoon. He retained the fly-half berth for the summer tour of South Africa and went on to kick all 27 England points in a pivotal victory over the Springboks in Bloemfontein.
Becoming a Lion
In 2001, England defended their Six Nations crown with the help of Wilkinson, who recorded an individual Championship record by scoring 35 points against Italy at Twickenham, overtaking his Newcastle mentor Andrew. More silverware followed for Wilkinson as the Falcons lifted the Anglo-Welsh Cup, but it was his achievements on the international stage that were grabbing the headlines.
With Welsh fly-half Neil Jenkins lacking form after a series of injuries, the door was open for Wilkinson to not only being named in the 2001 British and Irish Lions touring party, but be named first-choice No 10. He went on to kick nine points as the Lions triumphed 29-13 in the opening Test before hitting the back pages for the wrong reasons.
Wilkinson shouldered the blame for defeat in the second Test after throwing a long pass inside his own 22, which was intercepted by Joe Roff and many saw the error as a turning point in the series. Despite hobbling off injured Wilkinson made a full recovery to feature in the deciding Test and despite suffering defeat, his early second-half try coupled with his kicking success saw him equal the Lions’ best individual scoring total in a Test, with 18 points.
A full house at Twickenham witnessed one of Wilkinson’s finest moment in a 31-28 success against the All Blacks, which saw the fly-half score 21 of the team’s points. Wilkinson completed a fantastic chip-and-chase solo try as well as adding a drop-goal to his two conversions and three penalties on his way to an autumn international haul of 51 points as England beat New Zealand, Australia and South Africa on successive weekends.
Such success against the southern hemisphere powerhouses gave England significant momentum with the Rugby World Cup just around the corner and they continued to rise to prominence by claiming a Grand Slam in the 2003 Six Nations, with 77 points from Wilkinson.
Wilkinson’s most famed moment came later that year as he secured World Cup glory for the first time in England’s history in a dramatic final against Australia on their own turf. With the scores locked at 17-17 and just 26 seconds on the clock, Wilkinson struck an inch-perfect drop-goal that sealed a World Cup winners medal, the IRB World Player of the Year crown and an MBE.
Within weeks of winning the World Cup, it was discovered Wilkinson had a broken facet in his shoulder, which led to him spending a year and a half on the sidelines. During which time, Wilkinson was made an OBE and captain of England, although he never had the opportunity to lead the side out.
Despite his absence, Woodward selected Wilkinson to take the Lions jersey for a second time, but it was an arduous experience for the tourists, who lost all three Tests in New Zealand. Wilkinson started the first Test at fly-half before being drafted to centre the following week and returned to No 10 for the final Test.
Wilkinson eventually returned to the England dressing room for the Six Nations in 2007 – his first appearance in the tournament since 2003 - after two more years of injury and illness. England’s attempt to defend their World Cup title fell short the same year, with Wilkinson kicking just two penalties in their final defeat by South Africa.
A dislocated knee led to another long absence from the international stage and following his return, Wilkinson announced that he would be leaving Newcastle to join Top 14 side Toulon after 12 years in the north east.
Happy and injury free in France, Wilkinson starts the Six Nations as England's fly-half but loses his place to Toby Flood after a disappointing draw at Murrayfield in the fourth match before beginning a long spell of appearances from the bench.
Wilkinson went on to win his fourth Six Nations title as a replacement in each game in 2011 before taking the No 10 shirt back from Flood for the World Cup in New Zealand, in which a quarter-final defeat by France in Auckland turns out to be his 91st and final England cap as he took his points tally to 1,179, which remains second only to All Black Dan Carter.
By the time he opted to retire from international rugby in Decemeber 2011, Wilkinson was already forging a career in France have taken his perfectionist approach to goal-kicking to Toulon, where it is arguable he has, like a fine wine, got better with age. In April 2013 he played the full 80 minutes in the Heineken Cup Quarter-Final, scoring all 21 points against Leicester Tigers.
Wilkinson then landed 7 penalties and a drop-goal to defeat Owen Farrell – the present incumbent of the England No 10 jersey – and Saracens. In May 2013 he scored 11 points as Toulon saw off Top 14 rival Clermont to clinch a 16-15 victory in the Heineken Cup final in Dublin.
Wilkinson finished as the ERC European Player of the Year for the 2013 tournament, having not missed a single place kick in the knockouts with 17 from 17 attempts and finished with 56 points in the knockouts alone and 108 points in the entire tournament. Now he aims to defend that title and add the elusive French Top 14 trophy to round off a legendary career.
Watch Saracens take on Wilkinson's Toulon in the final of the Heineken Cup on Saturday, with coverage starting at 4:00pm on Sky Sports 2.