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As Wilkinson bows out, France salutes a beloved foe

AFP

Few players have inflicted greater pain on French rugby fans. Yet the fondness with which France bids farewell to Jonny Wilkinson on Saturday is a measure of the Englishman’s legacy on and off the pitch.

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In the dying minutes of the Heineken Cup final last Saturday, as the Saracens attempted one last, fruitless charge against Toulon, the TV cameras suddenly abandoned the game to follow one lonely figure as he quietly left the pitch.

Self-effacing to the last, Jonny Wilkinson had hoped to avoid the standing ovation every rugby fan was craving to give him.

But the 70,000-strong crowd inside Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium would have none of it; nor would the very emotional French match commentators.

Never mind Toulon’s record consecutive titles. This was “Jonny’s day”, no one else’s.

Expect much of the same this Saturday, as the Toulon skipper and former England international graces the pitch one last time in the final of France’s Top 14.

In a rare gesture (and one Wilkinson would, no doubt, gladly have done without), his teammates will be wearing a special jersey with “Merci Jonny” stitched on the collar.

Sure enough, some neutral fans may be tempted to support the underdogs Castres against the Goliath Toulon.

But few will want to see the 35-year-old from Surrey bow out on a defeat.

As my friend and keen rugby watcher Thibault Lieurade put it, “I cannot bear the thought of Toulon winning and yet I have to support them, for Jonny’s sake – however much misery he has inflicted upon us over the years.”

Feared and revered, but never loathed

Indeed, it is hard to think of a player who has done more harm to French fans – and never more so than at the 2007 World Cup in Paris, when Wilkinson's relentlessly accurate kicking crushed the home side’s dreams of glory.

Over the years, successive England coaches sought to lessen their team’s dependence on Wilkinson, sometimes relegating the 2003 World Cup hero to the bench.

Whether critics were right to claim Wilkinson was slowing down England’s passing game is an open debate.

Either way, the Red Rose never looked quite as formidable without him in the squad.

I remember watching the 2010 Crunch in a Paris pub, the home crowd going wild as England were on the ropes.

Then, with barely 10 minutes left in the game, Wilkinson finally came on and France’s old demons crept back in.

The home team ground to a halt, the crowd went quiet, and England fell just inches short of a remarkable comeback.

It was a rare victory for Les Bleus against the man who had defeated them eight times in 11 matches, and all inside the pub were relieved he had played such a small part in the game.

And yet despite the countless disappointments, the French have grown to respect, admire, and – dare I say – love the man fondly described as “Gentleman Jonny”.

The fact that Wilkinson draws similar affection among England’s other “old enemies” – Irish, Welsh and Scottish, to name but three – speaks volumes about his reputation on and off the field.

‘Did he enjoy the ride?’

With his astonishing skills and poster-boy looks, Jonathan Peter “Jonny” Wilkinson could have been rugby’s David Beckham.

Instead, he chose to shun the limelight and lead a simple, almost reclusive life marked by a monastic dedication to rugby.

On the pitch, he was a ruthlessly efficient kicking machine, a dedicated team player, and – remarkably for a fly-half – a fearless tackler, routinely taking on much larger opponents.

But, mercifully, he had one weakness. He was largely deprived of the one gift the French regard as theirs and theirs only: (French) flair.

In time, more insidious frailties emerged, eroding Wilkinson’s aura of invincibility and helping to paint a more complex and ultimately endearing portrait.

The devastating string of injuries that kept him off the pitch for so long is well known to rugby watchers.

But reports of his efforts to fight off repeated bouts of depression – including through quantum physics – have been slower to emerge.

A perfectionist to the point of obsession, Wilkinson was gracious to all but himself, brooding over every missed kick even when victorious, seemingly unable to bask in the glory and simply enjoy the moment.

Reflecting on Wilkinson’s career, his World Cup-winning former teammate Matt Dawson wrote: “Jonny was a selfless team man, driven by the need to deliver not for himself but for those around him. (…) Yet I will always wonder: did he actually enjoy the ride?”

As he prepares to hang up his boots on Saturday, Wilkinson has been at pains to give an affirmative answer to the question.

“I have been privileged and immensely lucky with my career and my teammates,” he told reporters after the Heineken Cup final, before adding: “I have been given too much respect and others deserve it more”.

The Englishman has certainly looked more relaxed and content since moving to the south of France in 2009.

Indeed, French fans might find some comfort in the knowledge that the twilight years of Wilkinson’s career were also his happiest.

 

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