An Ode to Jonny ‘That night in Sydney’ Wilkinson

The word legend is often used to freely in the realms of sport, but it would simply be unfair to describe Jonny Wilkinson as anything other than a Rugby legend. The man with the golden left boot has made the decision to hang up his boots in the international game and has left behind him one hell of a legacy.

The Early Years

‘That night in Sydney’ was the moment that made him worthy of legendary status, even if he being his modest self was a little underwhelmed with his own personal performance. He even rather infamously described his last-gasp, tournament winning drop goal (slotted under enormous pressure with his wrong foot) as a “dead duck”. This lack of interest in self-glorification and personal success is what has made him such an incredible asset to his nation and one of the finest players of all time.

For a man so humble about his abilities and his inspirational character he has amassed some seriously impressive individual achievements. Now we know that he is never to don the red rose again we are left looking back at such examples of his brilliance and the impact he has had upon the world of international rugby. This impact is probably demonstrated most clearly by his incredible tally of 1,179 points from 91 caps which places him second only to Dan Carter on the all-time top scorers list, and a clear leader of England’s own list of top point scorers.

These statistics are beyond impressive in their own right but Wilkinson will know more than most that it could have even more incredible had his body been able to keep pace with his talent. Staggeringly, Wilkinson managed to achieve all that he has in international and domestic rugby having had to endure the most miserable of periods out of the game with multiple serious and not so serious injuries, that in effect wiped out the four years of his career which could well have been his prime.

Between the successful World Cup Campaign in 2003 and the near-miss in the 2007 tournament, Wilkinson was sadly removed from the England international set-up due to such afflictions as a fractured shoulder, a recurrence of the same shoulder injury, an extended recovery period following reparatory surgery on his shoulder, a torn bicep, an upper arm haematoma, removal of his appendix, severe damage to his groin muscles, a torn adductor, torn knee ligaments and a lacerated kidney to name but a few…

The all too familiar sight of a Wilkinson injury

We will unfortunately never know just how many points he might have accumulated had he not spent so long in the rugby wilderness or just how good the England side could have continued to be had he been there to contribute and oversee this era as captain. Nevertheless, his achievements are right up there with the all-time greats and this is exactly how he should be remembered in the wake of his international career.

It is plain for all to see that Mr.Wilkinson hasn’t ever quite hit the heights of 2003 again in his playing career but he must be greatly admired for the courage and determination he has continued to demonstrate since the return from his darkest days prior to 2007.

When Jonny returned to the England side as a regular in the 2007 World Cup he helped inspire a quite frankly rather lacklustre troop of players to reach a second consecutive final and very nearly a second triumph on rugby’s greatest stage. His ability to control the game with his metronomic goal-kicking and more often than not immaculate tactical kicking will go down in history and it remained a terrific asset throughout this campaign. It served as a reminder for the world of rugby about just how much they had missed his presence.

Though his game has arguably suffered as a result of his long-term absence in terms of his pace and his adaptation to the ever-evolving way in which rugby is played, his touch of class has remained and as such he has ended his international career as England’s first choice fly-half.

Though the most recent England World Cup campaign was far from successful and wasn’t exactly befitting of Wilkinson’s final bow on the international stage, Jonny himself will be enormously proud that he was still a key player in an England side at the World Cup right up to what has turned out to be the finishing point of his glorious international career.

This retirement doesn’t of course mean the end of ‘Wilko’ as a top class rugby player, and as he has proven since his high profile transfer to Toulon he still has an awful lot to offer. The legs might not quite be what they once were, but his game management is still right up there as is his unrelenting effort and commitment on the pitch. He’s still a pretty handy goal kicker too….

It feels strange to know that Jonny will never play for England again while his domestic career will continue, but there is no doubt that his time as an international rugby superstar will be remembered with enormous fondness. I personally will always remember Wilkinson as England’s iconic number 10, who with his own brand of hard-work, modesty and complete lack of respect for his body (ie- his seemingly unquenchable thirst for pain and self-sacrifice on the field) became the model professional in the world of Rugby.

Thanks for the memories Jonny; a true legend of the game and a national hero to boot. Bring on the Knighthood.

Has the penny finally dropped for England @ The RWC?

A few tough weeks are not yet forgotten, but England’s performance against a poor Romania side this morning provided some significant respite. Less unforced errors, fewer moments of silly indiscipline and a more assured and confident day with the ball in hand all added up to a much improved showing from Martin Johnson’s men, and it was about time.

Though the opposition were at times staggeringly poor, it was vital that England treated the game with respect and that they did. From their early decision to slot three nerve-easing points from a penalty to their late attempt at what would have been an incredible breakaway try, England performed with total professionalism and hunger as finally they laid down their marker for the tournament.

In a week where South Africa and Australia silenced their critics it was the perfect time for England to make an impression and this result may not have sent out shockwaves, but it certainly will have made a few teams sit up and take note that England aren’t a team in total disrepair.

No matter how poor their opposition were it was encouraging to see England playing with far greater intent and this was helped dramatically by their improved handling throughout. Ben Youngs dictated the pace of the game very smartly at 9 and got the England backs firing right from the word go and he was well supported by Jonny Wilkinson in the first half and Toby Flood in the second. The combination play between the half-back pairings was neat, tidy and efficient and brought England’s try-scorers into play on a consistent basis.

It seemed that England knew a simplistic approach would suffice if they injected pace into their attacks and the vast majority of their tries came as a result of this approach. England were strong up front and endeavoured to provide Ben Youngs with the quick ball he thrives upon and this enabled the likes of Manu Tuilagi to play a starring role.

Tuilagi revelled in his greater involvement in attack

The young Pacific-Island dynamo was invited to play at his dangerous and brilliant best this morning with the quick service allowing him to take the ball on the shoulder of Wilkinson and Flood right up on the gain-line. For me he was the real star of England’s display and he was demonstrative of everything that England did right in attack today. His support running was fantastic and his hands consistent as he continuously made breaks through Romania’s defensive line and provided the simple hands necessary not just to score himself but to provide assists for others. In England’s previous games they haven’t played with enough confidence and conviction to bring Tuilagi and their other devastating supporting runners like Chris Ashton in from the fringes of the game, but today was a totally different story.

Has the penny finally dropped for England in New Zealand? It seems it has. Simple and strong rugby played at pace usually does for the minnows in tournament play and boy did it work today. Romania’s display was committed as was expected, but their error-strewn handling, shabby set-piece play and their inability to keep pace with England’s relentless execution of the basics meant that they failed to keep touch with their far more able opponents. From now England’s remaining matches in this World Cup will all be against truly world class opposition. Their next opponents Scotland have a huge match against Argentina tomorrow and whatever the result is they will be coming for England’s blood next week.

It is fair to say that England’s more direct and simplistic approach was suited better to today’s task rather than their upcoming encounters, but they would be well advised to take note that uncomplicated rugby does work if executed with confidence. England’s more exciting performers like Youngs, Tuilagi, Ashton and Ben Foden are the key to their potential success at the World Cup, but the way to utilise them most effectively is to get the basics right in the first place.

 

Can Johnson’s Wisdom guide England To Glory?

England embark upon another World Cup campaign on Saturday morning, and for now the weight of expectation is surprisingly manageable. The general consensus seems to be that England are short of the mark in comparison to the likes of hosts New Zealand who kick things off tomorrow morning, and as such they are going in unfazed, but also prepared and ready to try and slip under the radar as they did four years ago in their defence of the title. Perhaps it is the rather surprising run to the final four years ago which should inspire belief amongst the supporters, but for now it seems that qualification from the group is all many are expecting for the time being.

Four years ago England went into the tournament out of form, low on confidence and struggling to settle on the right line-up. This time around things appear to be a little more comfortable for them having dominated the 6 Nations earlier in the year. Though this campaign fell short with a Grandslam ruining defeat to Ireland, the level of performance leading up to the fall at the final hurdle was very encouraging.

Flood and Wilkinson are set to battle for the 10 shirt throughout the tournament

One of the successes of England’s opening four victories in the 6 Nations was the role played by Toby Flood at fly-half, where he played a higher attacking line and fulfilled his role as a playmaking 10 with confidence and verve. Four games into the campaign Flood will have been forgiven for thinking that he was a nailed on selection for the first XV come the World Cup, but as today’s announcement has revealed he hasn’t made the cut and 2003 hero Jonny Wilkinson is back at outside half. This turnaround in selection over the past six months is indicative of the highly competitive and hungry squad which Martin Johnson has at his disposal.

Other signs of strength in depth are also evident in Johnson’s selection for the Argentina match. Perhaps the strongest indication comes in the form of Delon Armitage who has gained a recall to the line-up at the expense of injury ‘risk’ Mark Cueto on the wing. Having endured a tough period in his career since an outstanding burst on to the International scene in 2009,  Armitage is back in England’s first choice Test side and though he is suprised to have got the nod he is determined to prove himself worthy.

Martin Johnson himself has admitted that Cueto would be able to play the match if entirely necessary and I guess his decision not to play him is testament to the reserve power which he believes England have in abundance. Something England have done well over the past couple of years has been to demonstrate versatility and flexibility in the face of adversity. The likes of Courtney Lawes have stepped up strongly when given the opportunity to impress and as such they have kept their places and go into the World Cup as first choice players.

Insert Lewis Moody Here...

So it seems that England’s strength going into the World Cup lies with their ability to pull together as a squad and fill in where and when needed. Whereas overwhelming favourites New Zealand and second favourites Australia boast ‘big name’ players with an ‘X-Factor, England’s squad is made up of more understated performers each of whom are interchangeable with the secondaries in their given positions without much damage ever being done. Martin Johnson is more aware than most of how you go about getting your hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy and it seems that his focus is quite rightly upon the importance of rugby being played as a squad game. If England are to spring a surprise and land a second World Cup title, it will be surprising if most of the squad don’t feature somewhere along the road.

At present it seems that England’s squad have found a fine balance of realism and optimism which should serve them well. I think the majority of the camp would be modest enough to accept that they perhaps lack the star quality of the tournament hosts but I imagine that they like Johnson back the depth and spirit of their ranks to rival any other side that they come up against over the next few weeks.

The feeling seems to be that maybe this World Cup has come to soon for England’s developing squad but young dynamos such as Ben Youngs, Manu Tuilagi and Courtney Lawes will benefit hugely come 2015 if England go deep into the tournament this time around.

30 Man Game

Opening Round Predictions:

Group A:

Winners – New Zealand, Runners Up – France

Group B:

Winners – Enlgand, Runners Up – Argentina

Group C:

Winners – Australia, Runners Up – Ireland

Group D:

Winners – South Africa, Runners Up – Samoa