Jonny Wilkinson and 5 Other Rugby Icons Who Deserve Their Shirt Number Retired
The retirement of players’ shirt numbers is commonplace in American sports and world football.
Sporting greats like Michael Jordan, Dan Marino and Wayne Gretzky have had their numbers immortalised in retirement after illustrious playing careers, and West Ham no longer allocate the No. 6 to any player in honour of England’s World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore.
But it has never happened in rugby, which made Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal’s request to the French league to retire the No. 10 jersey in honour of Jonny Wilkinson a surprise move.
In rugby the jersey number represents the position of the player far more so than in football and American sports, where squad numbers have long been commonplace. In rugby, No. 1 to No. 15 take to the field and play in the positions those shirts belong to.
It is a mark of the World Cup-winning fly-half's impact on the club in a relatively short period of time that Toulon are considering this move, which would be a first for rugby.
Should it catch on, there are a few other greats who might deserve the same honour. Here are my five.
Jonah Lomu, No. 11
The arrival and impact of Jonah Lomu in the No. 11 All Blacks jersey marked a paradigm shift in rugby.
We had never seen a winger so big, strong and fast as the New Zealander, and we had never seen any one man capable of smashing through tacklers like they weren’t there.
He could be credited with changing the way rugby looked at itself as it entered professionalism. Because of him, teams went in search of big, fast men to put into the No. 11 and 14 jerseys. Size and speed became the new "must-haves" for coaches.
But no one who came after him had the same effect. Lomu broke the mould. He scored tries that no one else could score—and he scored buckets of them.
The fact he did it all with a debilitating kidney disorder makes what he achieved all the more impressive.
Brian O’Driscoll, No. 13
The Irish legend retires at the end of this season as the greatest Irish player of all time. O’Driscoll has kept consistently brilliant standards since Day 1.
He hoisted Ireland out of their slump in the 1990s and inspired them to two Six Nations titles—one of them being a Grand Slam—and Triple Crowns along the way. He was also part of the Leinster side that won three Heineken Cups, and he toured with the Lions four times.
O’Driscoll had the lot—pace, skill, cunning, strength and a brilliant rugby brain that made him a cut above any other centre in world rugby for more than a decade. A true one-off.
John Eales, No. 5
Eales probably already has the closest honour to having his number retired.
In 2002 the John Eales medal was created and awarded to the Australian who was deemed by his fellow players to be the best Wallaby that season.
Eales earned the nickname "Nobody" during his career, as in Nobody’s perfect.
Not only was he imperious in the lineout and a brilliant scrummager, but he turned his hand to a spot of goal kicking too. He used his colossal forward’s ankle boots to great effect to welly more than 173 international points.
He played in two World Cup-winning sides in 1991 and 1999 and famously helped Australia retain the 2000 Bledisloe Cup with a penalty in the last minute.
Barry John, No. 10
The man they called the King in Wales is surely deserving of the honour. John retired at the age of 27, uncomfortable with the level of fame his unique talent had brought him. Paul Rees in the Guardian wrote of his last game:
More than 30,000, three times the crowd that turned up at the ground the following Saturday for the cup final between Neath and Llanelli, were there to watch John sign off with a trademark try, ghosting out of tackles on a 40-metre run, defenders falling over as if they were cardboard cut-outs blown down by the force of the fly-half's slipstream.
John marshaled the Lions to their 1971 series win over the All Blacks and formed a formidable half-back partnership with Gareth Edwards for club and country.
Wales have not had as talented a fly-half since he quit.
Willie-John McBride, No. 4
McBride is the legendary captain of the 1971 and 1972 Lions tours, which were won against New Zealand and South Africa, respectively. This was in an era when the home nations had little respect from the powerhouses of the Southern Hemisphere.
While titles and triumphs were harder to come by in the green of Ireland, McBride’s success with the Lions has immortalised him in its rich history as much for the victories as his style of leadership.
He was the architect of the famous "99" call on the tour of South Africa, which was used when one of the Lions came in for some rough stuff from the Springboks.
Upon such an incident, the Lions adopted a "one in, all in" approach on the basis that the referee couldn’t very well send them all off.
It worked—famously so when full-back J.P.R. Williams covered the width of the field to land a shot on Moaner van Heerden.