Legends - Jonny Wilkinson
Many in the southern hemisphere would baulk at seeing Jonny Wilkinson included among a list of greatest World Cup players, but while it may be true that his repertoire was made up largely of kicks, both out of hand and place-kicks, there have been few whose image has dominated a World Cup as much as Wilkinson did in Australia in 2003.
“Glad to see the back of you, Jonny” were the words inscribed on the caption to a photo in an Australian newspaper showing Wilkinson leaving the field after the final in Sydney. And it’s true that Wilkinson did break Australian hearts with that drop-goal, the one he slotted just seconds from the end of extra-time, to clinch the title for his team, still the only time in the history of the World Cup that a northern hemisphere team has won it.
Wilkinson had such an influence in earlier England matches that it was almost inevitable that he should have the deciding say in the tournament. While kudos had to go the mighty England pack for the way they suffocated all opposition, it was Wilkinson, with his pinpoint goalkicking from all angles, that kept the scoreboard ticking over and made the pressure pay off.
Wilkinson played a major role in the main pool match against the Springboks in Perth, his unerring boot responsible for 20 of the 25 points scored by his team. He then followed up with 23 of the 28 points his team scored in the quarterfinal against Wales at Suncorp Stadium.
England’s opponents in the semi-final were France, who they had beaten twice already that year, and Wilkinson continued with his virtuoso goalkicking feats by scoring all 24 points scored by his team in a 24-7 victory. So when, with 26 seconds to go, Wilkinson slotted the drop goal that won England the Cup, you could almost say it had been scripted.
For the record, he scored all England’s points in the final, but the drop-goal that won it was only his second success in four attempts at going that route. Wilkinson, and England, doubtless sowed the seed for this avenue of point scoring when that nation, with Wilkinson controversially excluded for Paul Grayson, bowed out of the previous World Cup in 1999 to a Springbok team that were galvanized by five drop-goals from Jannie de Beer in the Paris quarterfinal.
Not that drop-goals and place-kicks were Wilkinson’s only strengths. He was a calm, measured player on the field, directing operations like a flyhalf should, and he was helped in no small part in that tournament by England coach Clive Woodward’s decision to move Mike Catt, who was normally a pivot, to inside centre. It gave England options in the crucial decision-making axis at the back.
Wilkinson could kick the ball great distances, and he was also a better than average tackler, with not much in the way of heavy traffic getting through his channel. The No10 was rewarded for his efforts by winning the 2003 IRB World Player of the Year Award, and he was also named as the BBC Sports Personality of that year. In 2004 he was awarded an OBE.
Australia in 2003 was not the last the world saw of Wilkinson at a World Cup. Although he missed early games through injury, he returned to the playing field in time to score all England’s points in a 12-10 quarterfinal win over Australia in Marseille that also saw him surpass Gavin Hastings’ World Cup point scoring record of 231. He kicked some crucial kicks in the narrow win over France in the semi-final before becoming one of only four players to have played in two consecutive finals in a losing effort against South Africa in Paris.