Relentless off the tee and a gifted playmaker, Jonny Wilkinson’s performances in the number 10 shirt for England made him a defining player of his generation.
His dedication to his art became legendary and paid off when it came to pressure moments, be it nerveless conversions from the touchline, delicate place-kicks or, of course, drop goals.
Wilkinson was the heartbeat of an England side which won three Guinness Six Nations titles in four years in the early 2000s, keeping the scoreboard ticking over while also supplying the bullets for a back-line packed with pace and power.
England’s success during that era culminated on a memorable Saturday in Sydney, a day which changed Wilkinson’s life forever.
When the ball arrived with the fly-half, the score locked at 17-17 in the World Cup final against Australia with 26 seconds of extra-time remaining, a nation held its breath.
Wilkinson held his nerve to slot his drop goal between the posts and secure England their first ever men’s Rugby World Cup trophy.
While his name will forever be associated with that moment, it was far from the only highlight in a glittering career which ended with 91 England caps, six Tests for the British & Irish Lions and plenty of records broken along the way.
Born in Frimley, Surrey, Wilkinson played through the age groups at Farnham Rugby Club and developed his game at Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire.
He was tipped for stardom from a young age and became professional in 1997, joining Newcastle Falcons under the watchful eye of former England fly-half Rob Andrew.
In a sign of what was to come, Wilkinson did not have to wait long for a taste of success and helped the Falcons win the Premiership for the first time in 1997/98.
International recognition also came quickly. Wilkinson was the second-youngest England debutant in history when he made his Championship bow – in what was then the Five Nations – against Ireland aged 18 years and 314 days in April 1998.
Wilkinson made four appearances in the 1999 Five Nations, scoring 60 points, after which Italy joined the competition to complete the Championship line-up as it stands today.
THE GLORY DAYS
England dominated the early years of the new format, with Wilkinson an ever-present in the Championship between 2000 and 2003.
Having scored 78 points across the five matches in 2000, which saw England win their first Championship since 1996, Wilkinson hit new heights the following year.
The 89 points scored by Wilkinson in the 2001 Six Nations remains a competition record, while the 35 points he racked up against Italy at Twickenham – a try, nine conversions and four penalties – is still the most scored by an individual within a Championship match.
By the end of 2001, Wilkinson had become England’s leading Test points scorer – moving past his mentor Andrew – and he added a further 75 points to his tally in the 2002 Championship.
A French Grand Slam denied England a hat-trick of triumphs but that only renewed their determination to hit the summit again in 2003, which they did in style.
A 42-6 victory over Ireland at Lansdowne Road sealed a Grand Slam – which had eluded England earlier in the decade – and Wilkinson’s 15-point haul in Dublin took him to 77 for the Championship.
A faultless Six Nations campaign was the precursor to World Cup glory in a tournament that propelled Wilkinson into national folklore.
There was more to his tournament than *that* drop goal, too. Wilkinson scored 23 of England’s 28 points in the quarter-final win over Wales before scoring all of them in the 24-7 triumph against France in the last four.
His stunning exploits saw the fly-half named the 2003 BBC Sports Personality of the Year, while he also picked up the IRB International Player of the Year award.
The highs of 2003 were followed by a difficult few years for Wilkinson, who was plagued by injuries which continued to halt his international career.
He featured in two Lions Tests against New Zealand on the 2005 tour before more frustrating visits to the treatment table denied rugby fans the chance to see his wand of a left boot in action.
His England comeback came in the 2007 Championship opener against Scotland at Twickenham – the first time Wilkinson had featured for his country since the World Cup final 1,169 days previously.
As soon as the whistle blew it was as if he had never been away, with Wilkinson immediately reminding supporters what he was capable of.
A virtuoso display saw the fly-half score 27 points – a try, two conversions, five penalties and a drop goal – to break another of Andrew’s records, this time for the most individual points scored in a Calcutta Cup match.
It was also one of three occasions Wilkinson completed a ‘full house’ by scoring points from all possible methods in the same match, having previously done so against Wales and New Zealand in 2002.
The following week, against Italy, Wilkinson moved to the top of the all-time list of Five/Six Nations points scorers and he ended the 2007 campaign with 50 points from his three appearances before helping England reach another World Cup final – though this time they finished on the losing side against South Africa.
Another 50-point haul in the 2008 Championship was enough for Wilkinson to end the competition as top points scorer and, though he achieved the same haul in 2010, a Championship continued to elude England.
That was until 2011, when Wilkinson came off the bench in each of England’s five matches as they won their first Championship since the Grand Slam in 2003.
It was the perfect way for Wilkinson to round off his international career, which he called time on at the end of 2011, but further glory awaited the fly-half on the domestic scene.
He inspired Toulon, whom he had joined from Newcastle in 2009, to back-to-back European Cup wins in 2013 and 2014, before Wilkinson scored 15 of his side’s points in an 18-10 win over Castres in the Top 14 final to mark his last match in professional rugby.
Eight years after his retirement, Wilkinson remains England’s all-time leading points scorer with 1,179, while he is second in the all-time Five/Six Nations list behind Ronan O’Gara.
Wilkinson provided England supporters with memories to last a lifetime and his legacy as one of the best players to have featured in the Championship is secure.