BY NICK PEARCE
With two Heineken Cups, four Six Nations Championships, three Triple Crowns, a Grand Slam and a World Cup to his name, the man is an out and out winner. His ferocious tackling was courageous. His metronomic goal-kicking the result of many hours of practice – well after his teammates had returned home. Jonny Wilkinson was one of the greatest ever rugby players. For most Englishmen, his drop kick to win the 2003 World Cup is forever seared into memory. Wilkinson’s consequent travels to France were the stuff of legend. On 17 November 2016, he was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame at the opening ceremony for the Hall’s first physical location in Rugby, Warwickshire. Since his retirement from playing, Wilkinson has appeared as an eloquent and knowledgeable studio pundit for Sky Sports and ITV Sport. Wilkinson has always been a decent and humble man – unlike some of his teammates, he has led a blemish-free lifestyle and given a lot back to rugby via training and coaching tips, books and talks.
So, pray tell, why is Jonny Wilkinson still not a Sir?
On the one hand there are those that argue that rugby is a team game. Wilkinson would not have been in the pocket in 2003 if the scrum had not worked their socks off to drive the Australian maul back to the point where he was in range. You could look at the other members of that team and point to Captain Martin Johnson’s mere CBE, Lawrence Dallaglio’s mere OBE and Neil Back’s mere MBE – maybe Jonny Wilkinson CBE is about par?
On the other hand there is something seriously wrong with the honours system. Sir Nick Faldo achieved great things in golf but were his achievements as great in his sport as Wilkinson’s in his? Are those who decide on honours golf club bores?
While Wilkinson is a legend for that drop goal, his greatest achievement was surely winning the respect of the French when he played for Toulon. Many Brits have tried to win over the French and failed. Wilkinson overcame local resistance to become their hero. Visit the Toulon area now and they still talk of their Jonny with a tear in the eye. In May 2013 he scored 11 points as Toulon won the 2013 Heineken Cup Final by 16–15 against Clermont Auvergne. Wilkinson finished as the ERC European Player of the Year for the 2013 tournament, having not missed a single place kick in the knockouts with 17 from 17 attempts and finished with 56 points in the knockouts alone and 108 points in the entire tournament. On 24 May 2014, he led Toulon to a decisive 23–6 win against Saracens in the 2014 Heineken Cup Final. He scored 13 points in the game. One week later on 31 May 2014, he led Toulon once again to another win in a final, this time the Top 14 Final against Castres in which Toulon won 18–10. Wilkinson kicked 15 points. This was the last match of his career. After the final whistle, supporters from both French clubs sang “God Save the Queen” in tribute to him.
Ah but the fans at Old Trafford used to sing La Marseillaise for Cantona, the tight-fisted might argue. True. But Wilkinson did not kung fu kick a fan in the chest. Nor have they likely visited Toulon or that area of France where “Jonny” was sang in the streets, a club became united under his leadership and those who tend to seriously dislike Rosbif had their hearts melted by Wilkinson’s performances and humble character:
His Toulon teammate Nick Kennedy described the French adoration in 2014 to The Guardian:
“The French absolutely adore him. We’d park under the stadium and he had to have his own security guard – three hours before kick-off. The crowd loves him so much. Once a month we’d go and train at a different rugby club in the area and afterwards we’d do autographs. It would have been a lot quicker if we didn’t have Jonny. We’d be there for two hours – in a long line of tables. They had to go past the rest of us to reach Jonny. And with Jonny they’d want a photo and a hug. One of the reasons the team is so successful is because it’s driven by him. He’s the leader and he puts in more work than anyone but he’s incredibly humble. It’s a team full of superstars but they can’t let their egos get the better of them because Jonny’s in charge. He’s the most famous and the most talented but also the most grounded. In his team talks he speaks first in perfect French and then repeats it in English.”
“You must try and be humble, be brave and emulate Jonny Wilkinson,” the father tells his mini rugby playing son.
“His rugby career was amazing. Even the French love him. He was a great player and is a great man.”
“Then why is he not knighted, Daddy?”
There are knighthoods that the people decide. Captain Tom Moore is one. Let the people have their knight. Arise Sir Jonny.