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.

 

Don’t Disappoint Like Our Footballers

In their World Cup opener this morning England’s rugby team looked worryingly as though they are suffering from a touch of the “Cappello’s”. The symptoms, if you needed reminding of our football team’s terrible performance in South Africa last summer, are a lack of conviction, a seeming lack of desire and the players seeming incapability of producing their bread and butter stock trades amidst the pressure of the World’s premiere competition.

One would hope that these rather nasty symptoms are not allowed to develop further and that Martin Johnson and his back-room staff can act as England’s immune system and bring them back to full health.

 

Today  was shocking, the players seemed inhibited and Argentina had them absolutely rattled. Fortunately for England, Ben Youngs’ introduction sparked life into the backs division as they managed to scrape a narrow four-point victory, but had Argentina capitalised on Jonny Wilkinson’s uncharacteristically abject kicking performance with some better goal-kicking themselves then they would have won. The sad truth is that they probably didn’t deserve to lose and England’s performance wasn’t anything like worthy of winning a huge World Cup match.

Having ripped into a lifeless display from England, here are some positives to take from the game. Number one is that they beat a decent side even when playing at pretty much their worst. Number two is that they didn’t appear to pick up any real injuries. Now I’m struggling… I guess some might argue that it was good to get a bad performance out of the system early on and learn from it in time for the next big test against Scotland in their final group game, but it’s probably best to not have any poor performances at all isn’t it?

Next up for England are Georgia and in theory it should be a walk in the park if they find even the slightest glimmer of their best form. Though the Georgian’s are likely to front up and demonstrate real physicality, the gulf in class between the two sides in attack and in defensive organisation should really tell from start to finish and a comfortable win should be there for the taking.

Following on from the Georgia game is a match up with Romania which should be another easy win despite their impressive showing against the Scots in the ungodly hours of this morning. A theoretically straightforward couple of weeks should ensure then that England comfortably cruise towards qualification for the quarter finals without much cause for further panic or hysteria. However, they must be aware of just how much a major scalp would mean to the minnows of the competition and must make some serious alterations following today’s deficiencies.

In the wake of their limp display today it seems likely that Johnson will switch things around in the quest to play some more fluent rugby and get two confidence boosting victories under their belts before the Scotland clash. It is more than likely that Ben Youngs will come back in after his inspirational return from injury and he may well be partnered by club mate Toby Flood at fly half after Wilkinson failed to impress with his usually metronomic boot. Other changes could see Dylan Hartley, Matt Stevens, Tom Palmer, skipper Lewis Moody and Mark Cueto return to the fold and if they all perform well then who’s to say that they won’t keep a hold of their place when the bigger matches come around?

If Fabio Capello had shifted things around dramatically last summer after a poor opening draw with the USA then perhaps he would have reaped the rewards as Martin Johnson will dearly hope to do in England’s next two fixtures. If the rugby team need inspiration to improve then they should look no further than the likes of Capello and Wayne Rooney who have endured very tough years since their underwhelming performances at the football World Cup. Though rugby is certainly a sport which receives less media spotlight than football it is important that England are inspired by the negative reaction to today’s performance rather than bothered by it otherwise they could end up on the receiving end of a serious barrage of abuse come the end of the tournament.

Good but not good enough for England’s Grandslam chasers

Saturday evening saw a disappointing climax to England’s 6 Nations campaign, but lets not get too down about it. Indeed, the Grandslam was there for the taking against a previously out of sorts Ireland side, but all in all to have won the championship with an injury-hit and inexperienced side is still commendable.

Ireland centre Brian O'Driscoll scores

The absence of England’s Captain, Lewis Moody, and Vice Captain Mike Tindall cannot be underestimated. A nervous looking England never got the bit between their teeth and struggled for a foothold, whilst the Irish turned the form-book in it’s head taking to the field in barnstorming fashion.

For the vast majority of the game the Irish appeared to have intimidated their opposition, with an admirably high intensity level matched only by their skill and clinical finishing. It was a performance of such high-class and control, epitomised by the young outside-half Johnny Sexton. His seeming lack of composure in pressure moments and inexperience have been highlighted in his more recent outings, but no such negatives were apparent this time out. What a luxury it is too for the resurgent Irish to have the hugely experienced dictator Ronan O’Gara there to call upon as the more than able deputy. His ten minute cameo demonstrated all you need to know about the Munster-man; passion, composure and a touch of real class under-pressure. His deft prod to the corner with the outside of his boot in the closing stages was nothing short of sublime, and conveyed beautifully the ‘midas-touch’ possessed by the Irish on the night.

England were however crowned champions of the tournament and have reason to celebrate this. It is an achievement perhaps not of the substance with which Grandslams are made of, but commendable nonetheless. The defeat itself must be taken as the Autumn defeat to South Africa was; a learning curve for an inexperienced squad striving to ensure they are ready to make an impression at the World Cup come this autumn.

The signs prior to today have been positive; the closing out of tightly contested matches against Wales, France and Scotland, and the clinical deconstruction of the Italians. Have no doubts that this defeat was a missed opportunity, but it was as much about Ireland’s rejuvenation as an attacking force as it was about England’s lack of nerve. All teams have good days and all have bad ones. This performance in isolation was well-below par, but Martin Johnson will do well to reinforce the positives to have come out of this campaign.

The fly-half partnership of starting 10 Toby Flood and class-act deputy Jonny Wilkinson has provided depth and balance, as has the emergence of youngster’s Tom Wood and Alex Corbisiero. Depth is so crucial when it comes to World Cup year and with the likes of Moody, Tindall, Tom Croft, Courtney Lawes and Andrew Sheridan ready to return in the Autumn it seems England have this base covered. The only major concern for the England selectors must be the consistently anonymous performances of Shontayne Hape, and the lack of alternative options in the centres, demonstrated by Matt Banahan’s pretty one-dimensional threat in the defeat.

Ultimately, it has been a good couple of months for ‘Jonno’s’ boys and it remains to be seen whether such promise can amount to a higher level of consistency. Never mind the disappointment of not quite finishing off the job, they have been leagues ahead of their Northern hemisphere competitors over the course of the tournament and appear to have to edge over the old-enemy Australia in recent times. The jury is out over whether we can compete with the All Black flair and the power of reigning World Champions South Africa, but with the exception of their most recent showing, England appear a force to be reckoned with.