Yesterday evening we saw an outpouring. People were competing almost to be the one that said the most heartfelt thing about a retiring star. Jonny Wilkinson has retired from international rugby and we all seem to be back in love with him.
The word eulogy has crept into sports analysis of late. It has been taken to mean praise and study of a play or a career. However it still retains its meaning of a speech or tome written in praise of the deceased, and some of that meaning shone through last night.
Amongst those saying he was a revolutionary, that he changed the game, that he showed the world what professionalism meant there were those that took it a step too far. “To a man who’s talent, work ethic, attitude and humility was second-to- none!!” tweeted Jason Robinson. “Was”? He is still playing rugby for Toulon. “What a trooper Jonny Wilko was” Rugby Dump tweeted. He still is.
What irks me about this situation is that Wilkinson was so good for so long he stuck around long enough to see himself become the bad guy. In his day he was unplayable. He would run games from ten, willing the ball into positions from either foot and smashing defenders. He could pass, he could run, he could organise and he could last a game.
I will always remember that try he scored against New Zealand at Twickenham in 2002 when he feigned to drop kick, chipped over the top and collected himself to slide in as England fans roared him on. That was the moment we were all sure he was World Class and could potentially guide England’s rusty old rig all the way to glory…
Which he did. He hit ‘that’ drop goal. We will all forget how many attempts it took him or how poor Elton Flatley kept pace with him for that entire contest because finally, finally, a British sports person had shown themselves well on a World stage. He was the man who singlehandedly booted England to the Webb Ellis Trophy.
He was not to stay this same person, though. The man who was so full-on in contact was to irreversibly damage his body, puncturing organs and destroying shoulders. Even after recuperating from the pains, the man has to yet know what is rehab like, because his impending speech problem affected his ability to speak properly. The man who worked through everything with relentless practice didn’t know what to do when that stopped sorting out his wayward kicks. One thing that did not change, though: he still needed smiling practice.
Beforehand we put it down to focus. Now we put it down to the fact that he was not the same player, and with all his hours of work and impossible standards it was eating him up.
Last season, when a major athletics championship down south was on, there was an anomaly with the allocation of drug testers in Britain. Scottish testers went down to the southern counties and those from the north of England came up to cover Scottish sports. Understandably after an 80minute game of rugby I struggled to produce a sample for some time. So as you do you get talking to the tester.
He said he tested Wilkinson once. Nice fella. Focused. Came up to give his sample. Dehydrated. Knackered. Still did it. Force of will. Just did it on the spot. Bang! “Cheers Jonny, you’re a Superstar”, the tester said. “Used to be…” Jonny replied as he slinked off.
That was the issue with Wilkinson being in the international glare. He was never going to be the same person that reached those impossible heights. He knew that. He still is the embodiment of professionalism but he is also a cautionary tale to enjoy what you are doing, not just punish yourself rigid with targets.
I want everyone to remember Jonathan Wilkinson OBE with balance. He is one of the greatest players of the professional era. A Hall of Famer. A World Cup winner who defined a generation of English rugby players. A kicker that showed everyone what could be achieved if kicking was your most prized tool and you spent hours priming it. A man dedicated to rugby, but a man consumed by it. The greats always make sacrifices. His took such a toll on him that he will never be the same again. Someone give him one last medal so he can rest. I hope that when he gives it up all together and says he is proud of his achievements I can believe him, because I certainly do when he says “I will never truly be satisfied.”
JW: The Professional.