OPINION: Jonny Wilkinson retired from rugby in the early hours of this morning hoping to have steered Toulon to their first French title in 22 years. Jonny says that he is a fraud. The rest of the world says he is a freak.
Dan Carter can claim to be the finest number ten of a generation, but Jonny can perhaps claim to be the greatest.
You may well wonder what the difference is, and it is this. Carter can do things on a rugby pitch that Wilkinson cannot do and never will do.
The great All Black is the better, the more complete rugby player. But Carter is short of pots, he has never even played in a World Cup semi-final, and his character does not set him apart like Wilkinson's.
That is not to criticise Carter. We like normal blokes in New Zealand and Carter is a normal bloke. Wilkinson is not. He is an extraordinary bloke. In an age of celebrity, Jonny has remained almost out of sight.
You may not know this, you may have been deafened by the noise of the special k's, Kanye and Kardashian, but last November Jonny got married. The ceremony took place in a French town hall. There were two guests. One was Jonny's mum.
Jonny is a bit of a weirdo, but in a lovely humble way. He likes a slice of Buddhism and says things like, "My time is not now. It has been and won't be."
Any other bloke would seize this day. Last weekend, a day shy of his 35th birthday, Wilkinson manoeuvred Toulon to a successive European title. Whatever he says, it was an extraordinary performance. He made one mistake, spilling a ball in contact, the rest was a perfect ten.
Of course it is the mistake that will torment Wilkinson. He said, "I've lived for 17 years where every weekend your life hangs in the balance. It might be nice that that's no longer the case, waking up on a Saturday morning without that horrible feeling in your stomach and not having to worry about all the what ifs."
Of course, Wilkinson's life didn't hang in the balance, except in his mind. He is obsessive. Earlier this season, before a match in Glasgow, Jonny went through his morning kicking routine in a supermarket car park because the practice pitches were closed. Wilkinson has always been haunted by imperfection.
He once said, "I've been searching for tranquility in a world created by obsessive thoughts."
Wilkinson's utter absence of arrogance, of any conceit, means that many Scots, Welsh and French, traditionally bitter sporting enemies of blasted Albion, will stand alongside the English and applaud Jonny from the stage.
The applause started last weekend in Cardiff where many French and Welsh hands came together. Wilkinson is admired as man. He is the antidote to English arrogance.
The Toulon 10 hardly touched the ball for the first 20 minutes of the European final. He was a domestique, clearing bodies, cleaning up the rubbish. Then there was an inside ball to Carl Hayman. Who would have thought in 2005 that these two would stand shoulder to shoulder as teammates one day.
Then the magic play. Jonny gave an arm signal, just before he took the ball to the left of the ruck, on the openside. Misdirection. The deep defence and the front line drifted Jonny's way. He switched the ball back right to Matt Giteau with perfect accuracy. The Aussie hooked a chip over the committed defence, Drew Mitchell beat the fullback to the ball and Giteau followed up to score.
Wilkinson, Giteau and Mitchell made a fool out of Alex Goode, England's some time full back, all game. They exposed how slow Goode is to change direction. They also exposed Andy Farrell, England's first choice fly-half.
Toulon dummied a forward drive and then Wilkinson took the ball out the back. Farrell, so pleased to have read the play, went to bury Wilkinson. He got the hit in but Wilkinson got a perfect long pass in first. Dave Strettle then came up to bury Mitchell, who ducked under, and Toulon were through the over-committed defence for their second try.
This match was a celebration of Wilkinson. Farrell and Goode, missed the odd penalty kick, at goal or to touch, and a drop goal went wide. Every Wilkinson penalty to touch hit its mark. All four kicks at goal, two from the touchline and two from the 10 metre line, bisected the posts. They never looked like missing. And of course there was a drop goal off his right foot, supposedly the weaker.
That strength of mind, reading of the game, planning and two-footedness are why Carter has always rated Wilkinson so highly. Wilkinson is so revered in Toulon, despite having twice kicked France out of a World Cup semi-final, that the club want to retire his number 10 jersey, something that has never happened in rugby before. Jonny Ten they call him.
World Cup-winning teammate Will Greenwood wrote in the Telegraph, "Jonny Wilkinson is the kid who came into the England set-up and dragged a lot of us from the dark ages into the future. His levels of dedication and ability to physically and mentally crucify himself were a genuine shock. Respect was earned the hard way - by showing you would never back down or run away."
Wilkinson says, "I have been given too much respect and others deserve it more. Some will realise soon I am a bit of a fraud. I have been part of great teams and others should get credit. In the end, I get paid well to fulfil my passion."
It's not false humility. Jonny actually believes it. While Yaya Toure rails because no one said happy birthday to him, Jonny has his cake and eats it, alone, in the corner, thinking about how he can help the team. It is why he is so respected by fan and player alike. Wilkinson will be missed in New Zealand this winter. He is still the best 10 in England.
- Sunday Star Times
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