Major teams: Newcastle, Toulon
Test span: 1998-2011
England caps: 91 (79 starts)
Lions caps: 6 (6 starts)
Test points: 1,246 (7T, 169C, 255P, 36DG)
Rugby’s Greatest: Jonny Wilkinson
If Jonah Lomu shocked the world with his physical power, Jonny Wilkinson had no less an impact with his sheer professionalism. Nobody in history has done more to prepare himself for a game of rugby, and scores of fellow pros were driven to raise their own standards having seen the English fly-half’s obsessive training regime at close quarters.
Even as a lad, Wilkinson would rise early so he could practise kicking at his local club in Hampshire, Farnham, for 90 minutes before school. The hours paid off as he was to finish his career with a clatter of records, including most World Cup points (277), most Lions Test points (67) and most Test drop-goals (36).
England’s youngest cap for 71 years when making his debut aged 18 in 1998, Wilkinson was initially an inside-centre before making the No 10 shirt his own by the age of 20. Among a multitude of outstanding performances, few match the one he gave off his sick bed in Bloemfontein in 2000, when he scored all the points in a 27-22 victory.
That South Africa tour gave England the belief they could beat anyone, and three years later Wilkinson dropped the goal that won the World Cup in Sydney.
His quest for perfection knew no bounds. Wilkinson was not only a deadeye two-footed kicker and exquisite passer off both hands, he was a remorseless and thumping tackler in a position that often sees reluctant and ineffectual defenders.
He explained: “That ultra competitive switch in me gets flicked when a ball-carrier looks at me as if to say ‘I’m going to run straight over you’.”
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Against Ireland in England’s 2003 Grand Slam victory, he made three tackles in 22 seconds – not that we should be surprised because he regularly won the squad’s conditioning tests. He was also struck by the footwork and agility of code-crosser Jason Robinson and sought to add that to his game.
Stardom sat uneasily on Wilkinson’s shoulders and he endured a painful three years of 14 injuries and unwanted attention, his all-time worse situation being stuck on an EasyJet flight with a stag party chanting his name.
He returned to win another 42 caps, playing in two more World Cups, and after moving to France led Toulon to a domestic and European double before he retired. They even played God save the Queen at the Top 14 final. “He’s maybe the only English guy loved by all the French,” said former Toulon team-mate Felipe Contepomi.