Farewell to a Rugby World Cup legend
Few players can claim to have had as big an impact on Rugby World Cups as England’s Jonny Wilkinson. Having racked up no fewer than 277 points, Wilkinson is the tournament’s all-time leading point scorer and can look back at a glittering international career that spanned four campaigns between 1999 and 2011, including a Rugby World Cup winner’s medal in 2003.
On 31 May, Wilkinson bid farewell to professional rugby after a fairy tale season with Toulon FC, which saw the French outfit crowned domestic and European champions. But for many, Wilkinson’s greatest achievements came in an England shirt and, in particular, on the Rugby World Cup stage.
In the aftermath of his recent retirement, we take a look at Wilkinson’s contributions to the game’s showcase event.
Breaking onto the scene
Wilkinson made his first appearance at a Rugby World Cup against Italy on 2 October, 1999, just one year after being blooded on England’s infamous ‘tour of hell’ to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
England bounced back a year later to get their RWC 1999 campaign off to a flying start with an impressive 67-7 win over the Azzurri. Wilkinson was in imperious form on his debut, scoring a try as well as kicking five penalties and six conversions. But while his induction to the tournament could scarcely have gone any better, England’s prodigal fly half, even by his own admission, was surprised by the scale and pressures of playing in a Rugby World Cup:
“Before I went in I wasn’t really aware of what it was all about, I was a little bit naive and innocent to the Rugby World Cup and what it meant. You think you’ve been to a full house at Twickenham and suddenly you go to Twickenham on a World Cup day. The sheer do-or-die nature of the games just meant that it was shrouded in an intensity that I’d never experienced before. Afterwards, looking back, I’m just grateful I got the shot. It meant so much to me and so much for my career afterwards as well.”
Wilkinson went on to feature twice more at RWC 1999, playing in England’s 30-16 Pool B defeat to New Zealand as well as their 45-24 quarter final play-off win over Fiji. He was eventually dropped for England’s quarter final match against South Africa in Paris, which the Springboks won 44-21, but the mercurial Wilkinson had already announced his talents to the world and, from England’s point of view, the best was yet to come.
Reaching the pinnacle of the game
England arrived in Australia for RWC 2003 full of expectation on the back of a successful tour of the southern hemisphere. Clive Woodward’s men managed to continue their fine run of form into the opening matches of the tournament and, after beating Georgia 84-6, recorded a decisive 25-6 victory over South Africa including 20 points from Wilkinson’s ever-reliable boot. After the high of the match against the much-fancied Springboks, England were then confronted with a formidable physical challenge in the form of Samoa. The men in white won the match 35-22, but as Wilkinson remembers, it was a far from comfortable victory:
“After the win against South Africa we had the sheer shock of playing against Samoa the following week and getting rattled by a team that came out firing. It was one of those games where you realise that everything that you’ve worked hard for and put into your preparation for the tournament can disappear just like that. It took us an hour to get ahead in that game. We scored a couple of tries late near the end, and the relief when we all felt when the referee blew the final whistle was monumental," said Wilkinson.
After being rested for the final pool match against Uruguay, Wilkinson would be back in the starting line-up for the remainder of England’s RWC 2003 campaign. In the quarter finals, England survived another scare, this time in the shape of Wales, who deservedly led at half-time. England rallied in the second half and, with the help of 23 points from Wilkinson, eventually ran out 28-17 winners.
In the semi-final, Wilkinson scored all of England’s points in a 24-7 victory over France to set up the mouth-watering prospect of a showdown with the tournament hosts and reigning champions Australia. The RWC 2003 Final was to cement Wilkinson’s immortality in English rugby, after slotting a last-gasp drop goal deep into extra-time in what is arguably the most exciting Rugby World Cup Final ever played. The victory meant that, for the first time ever, a northern hemisphere side were crowned champions. Wilkinson finished RWC 2003 as the tournament’s leading point scorer with 113 points.
Mixed fortunes in France and New Zealand
The next two Rugby World Cups brought about mixed emotions for Wilkinson. Due to an ankle injury, he was not included in the opening two matches of RWC 2007 against the USA and South Africa. Wilkinson returned for England’s last two pool matches against Samoa and Tonga. England’s second place finish in Pool A set up a quarter final clash against Australia, with Wilkinson kicking all of their points in a 12-10 victory over the Wallabies in Marseille.
For the second tournament in a row England and France met in the semi-finals. Two late kicks from Wilkinson ensured that the reigning champions knocked the hosts out 14-9, and the stage was set for a compelling final between South Africa and England. But it was the Springboks who brought England’s reign as Rugby World Cup champions to an end with a 15-6 win at the Stade de France in Paris, with England’s only points coming from their mercurial fly half.
At RWC 2011 in New Zealand, Wilkinson started all four of England’s pool matches. After convincing wins over Georgia and Romania, and narrow victories over Scotland and Argentina, England again found themselves in the knock-out stages against France. However, their quarter final showdown against Les Bleus at Eden Park on 8 October, 2011, was to be Wilkinson’s last ever appearance at a Rugby World Cup, and shortly after the tournament he announced his retirement from international rugby to focus on his club career.
New role at RWC 2015
Even though he may not be involved in the on-field action anymore, the next Rugby World Cup in England will hugely significant for Wilkinson. Alongside Lawrence Dallaglio, Will Greenwood, and Maggie Alphonsi, Wilkinson is one of the four tournament ambassadors for England 2015 and is already involved in the build-up to next year’s tournament which will take place in 10 host cities across England and Cardiff:
“It is enormously exciting to think of the Rugby World Cup and the sport that I love being played in England next year," said Wilkinson. "This is going to be a huge celebration of rugby, and give people the opportunity to experience the game for the first time. Rugby World Cups provide amazing moments and unforgettable memories. I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in a few of those during my career and it’s with huge anticipation that I’m waiting to see what RWC 2015 brings, but I know it’s going to be a fantastic event.”