CASTRES, FRANCE – Jonny Wilkinson announced on Monday, May 19, what everyone has been expecting for some time. He will retire at the end of the season.
The Toulon star made the announcement in a brief statement on the club’s website.
He wrote: “I would like to take this opportunity to formally announce my retirement from playing rugby. It goes without saying that I have an enormous number of people to thank for their support from all around the world but especially here in France and in England.
“This, however, is not at all the time to be concentrating on this as I would like to focus all my attention and energy on the team and these final two games of the season.
“I sincerely thank you all for everything you have given me and for making these last 17 years something I will never forget.”
England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup star has a maximum of two matches left in his playing career – but he could sign off with two more winners’ medals to his name.
The first of those matches is Saturday’s Heineken Cup final against Saracens in Cardiff. The second is the Top 14 final against Castres Olympique at Stade de France a week later.
He will turn 35 on Sunday, the day after the Heineken Cup final. And his retirement marks the end of an era. He is the last of England’s class of 2003 still playing the game.
The soon-to-be-ex-player made his debut for Newcastle in 1997. He stayed with the club until 2009, when he swapped northeast England for southeast France. He won the Tetley’s Bitter Championship twice during his 12-year stint for Newcastle.
It was during this time – probably in part because his mentor was Rob Andrew – that Wilkinson came to the attention of Clive (later Sir Clive) Woodward.
He endured an international baptism of fire – when he missed every kick at goal on his debut, aged just 18, on England’s “Tour of Hell” to Australia in 1998 – but Woodward clearly saw something in him that many others missed. He kept faith with the yound man.
He was rewarded. And how. Wilkinson is one of just five men to have scored 1,000 points in international rugby. His 1,246 international points for England and the British Lions puts him second only to New Zealand’s Dan Carter.
Wilkinson and Woodward guided England to the 2000, 2001 and 2003 Six Nations titles – and then, on a remarkable night, to the World Cup in Australia in 2003.
His nerveless right-footed drop goal deep into injury time, when fatigue and fear would strike fear into the heart of mere mortals, has become one of the moments of modern rugby lore.
But Wilkinson’s never-say-die approach to the game would be, in part, his undoing. His ferocious tackling led to injuries that meant he would not be quite the force he once was. But he still guided an apparently rudderless England to the 2007 World Cup final, and won one more Six Nations, in 2011.
He retired later that same year, with 91 England and six British Lions caps to his name.
By this time, his legend was assured in France – especially in the blue-collar naval town on the Mediterranean coast that he would call home.
He has notched up more than 100 appearances for the Var side, was named European Player of the Year last year, and lifted the Heineken Cup last year too.
On Saturday, in the first half of what could turn out to be a two-part retirement party, he could lead the French side to become only the third to successfully defend the Heineken Cup after Leinster and Leicester.
A week later, he will want to bow out in style, by leading his side to Top 14 glory against Castres at Stade de France.
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