Jonny Wilkinson.
Jonny Wilkinson. NZ Herald

Wilkinson hangs up his boots

JONNY Wilkinson, who last night announced his retirement from international rugby, is most famous for his winning drop-kick in the final of the 2003 World Cup, where England beat Australia 20-17 in Australia.

The 32-year-old announced yesterday that he was "fill[ed] with great sadness", but that he could not go any further with the England team, for whom he won 91 caps, the second most, behind Jason Leonard, and scored 1,179 points, nearly three times as many as anyone else.

"To [announce my retirement] fills me with great sadness, but I know that I have been blessed in so many ways to have experienced what I have with the England rugby team," he said in a statement yesterday.

"I never ever believed that I would be able to give up on this dream which has driven me to live, breathe, love and embrace the game of rugby from the earliest days that I can remember.

"I certainly have no intention of letting this decision change the way that I approach my training and preparation for games. In fact, early indication shows me that I'm actually getting more intense about it. Playing the game, representing the team, giving my all and never letting go has meant everything to me. I do, have done and always will believe that I am very capable of performing and thriving at any level of the sport.

"The time has come, however, for me to realise that I have gone as far as I can go with this England team and that the time is right for others to enjoy the same honour and pride that I have felt over the past 15 seasons and beyond."

Wilkinson looked back on his long and successful international career warmly. "To say I have played through four World Cups, two Lions tours, 91 international games and a ridiculous number of injuries and other setbacks gives me an incredibly special feeling of fulfilment. But by now I know myself well enough to know that I will never truly be satisfied!"

For all of his many triumphs, Wilkinson struggled with injuries and he paid particular tribute to them in his statement. "I can never give enough credit to all my team-mates from over the years, and my physios, surgeons, doctors and coaches, too, who have unconditionally helped me through all kinds of thick and thin," he said, before thanking his many supporters.

"Finally, I would like to show my enormous appreciation and gratitude to all the true followers of the game who have given me way, way more time and support than it has ever been reasonable for one person to ask for. You will never truly understand the effect you have all had on me and my career."

Although he will always be remembered for the 2003 final, Wilkinson also played in the 2007 final, which England lost 15-6 to South Africa in Paris. He was involved in four Six Nations-winning teams, most recently this year, as well as a Grand Slam in 2003. He also won six caps for the British and Irish Lions.

Lewis Moody, another member of the 2003 World Cup-winning side, who himself announced his retirement from international rugby in October, paid tribute to the departing fly-half. "I'm humbled to have played alongside him," he said. "I'm saddened but his contribution over the years, his work ethic, professionalism and commitment, has been immense.

"He put everything into what he did. It was incredible to watch him train and perform. The fact he missed four years of international rugby but still amassed 97 caps is unimaginable. If he puts his mind to it he could keep doing it - and I think he could have given more.

"But for him the decision is right and considering the amount of work he's put in and the number of injuries he's had in his career, he deserves to enjoy a long and restful retirement.

Wilkinson's retirement deprives the interim England coach, Stuart Lancaster, of his use in the forthcoming Six Nations. Lancaster, though, was unsurprisingly positive about Wilkinson's contribution. "Jonny has had a fantastic international career which has spanned four World Cups and 91 caps, and ranks as one of England's greatest ever players," he said, before praising his professional approach to the game.

"He will, of course, be remembered for that drop goal. But he is more than that, a model sportsman - down-to-earth and hard-working - who has never stopped trying to be the best that he can. Everyone who has played with, coached and watched Jonny play should feel privileged to have had an involvement with him.

"Not only has he been a world-class player, but he has inspired thousands to play and watch the game of rugby. He will continue to do great things with Toulon, and I would like to go and see him in France to learn from his vast knowledge and experience of 13 years at the very top of the international game."

His former England team-mate and schoolfriend Ugo Monye described Wilkinson as "a total legend, on and off the pitch" last night. "He's an unbelievable ambassador, he's a guy who I thought was never going to retire," Monye told Sky Sports News. "He's the most professional sportsman I've ever worked with. It's the mindset.

"I went to school with Johnny. The way he trained then as a 16-year-old is just how he trains now. You probably wouldn't find a prouder Englishman, he absolutely loved playing for his country. For him to hang up his boots and watch from a distance is obviously going to be frustrating. The class of 2003 was pretty special, but he's one of the best names up there."

After spending 12 years at Newcastle, Wilkinson has played for French side Toulon for the last two seasons, and Wilkinson said that he remains committed to them. "For me now, I will continue to focus ever harder on my goal of being the very best I can be with Toulon Rugby Club, and continue to embrace and enjoy wherever that path takes me."