Jonny Wilkinson: Ranking His 10 Best Performances

Danny Coyle@dannyjpcoyleFeatured ColumnistMarch 26, 2014

Jonny Wilkinson: Ranking His 10 Best Performances

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    Lionel Cironneau/Associated Press

    With the news that this is likely to be Jonny Wilkinson’s last season before he hangs up his boots, per Jack De Menezes of The Independent, it’s the perfect time to look back at some of his best performances.

    Wilkinson made his England debut as a teenager in Dublin in 1998, and he finally left the international scene some 13 years later after the 2011 World Cup.

    Along the way, he won domestic leagues and cups with Newcastle, tasted European success with Toulon and claimed Grand Slams and a World Cup with England, at one point becoming the world’s leading points scorer.

    The 2003 IRB player of the year did it all in the face of an eye-watering list of injuries, relying not on the greatest skill or natural talent but on a relentless work ethic that made him one of the world’s best No. 10s.

    The Indian summer to his career in Toulon even brought him to the brink of a third Lions tour last year, only for Wilkinson to decide his time on the international stage was over despite the offer of a place on the plane from Warren Gatland.

    When he takes off his trusty boots for the last time this year, the rugby world will rise as one to salute a unique figure in the game.

    Let’s have a look at his 10 best displays.

10. 2000 vs. France, Paris

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    Wilkinson was not just known for his goal-kicking.

    His defence made him the hardest-tackling fly-half in world rugby during his prime, and that was never better evidenced than in this Six Nations clash with France.

    Les Bleus wing Emile Ntamack, no garden gnome himself in the stature department, came scorching into midfield from his flank, and he was met by Wilkinson head on, who hit the Toulouse man with such force it lifted him clean off his feet and smashed him to the turf.

    In a dour contest, Wilkinson kicked all of England’s points for a 15-9 win.

9. 2011 vs. Wales, Twickenham

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    Late in his career, Wilkinson was vying for the starting No. 10 jersey with his old Newcastle team-mate Toby Flood.

    He was given the nod in a World Cup warm-up match at home to Wales, and he delivered a masterclass that ensured he would be the first choice for that year’s World Cup.

    Wilkinson kicked two drop goals, a penalty and two conversions, as well as setting up Manu Tuilagi for his first international try.

    England had problems elsewhere in the side, but Martin Johnson was left in no doubt as to the value Wilkinson still had to his team.

8. 2003 vs. Ireland, Dublin

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    England had blown a host of Grand Slams early in Wilkinson’s career, but 2003 was different.

    They arrived in Dublin on the final weekend of the Six Nations in no mood for another slip-up.

    And they took Ireland apart in a 42-6 demolition in which Wilkinson scored 15 points and orchestrated five tries.

    He also put a huge tackle in on Irish wing Justin Bishop to underline his defensive power.

7. 2007 vs. France, Paris

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    Brian Ashton’s unimpressive side somehow found itself in the semi-final of the 2007 World Cup, and they were ahead early through Josh Lewsey’s try.

    France hit back with two penalties before Wilkinson got in on the act to trade three-pointers with Lionel Beauxis, leaving France 9-8 ahead.

    The game was into the 75th minute when Wilkinson got his next opportunity from the tee, which he nailed to edge England ahead.

    France threw the kitchen sink at the English defence, but it held firm, and with two minutes left, Wilko delivered his coup des gras, slotting a drop goal to break French hearts all over again.

6. 2013 vs. Saracens, Twickenham

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    Wilkinson’s move to Toulon seemed to banish the injury woes that blighted his time as a Newcastle player, and he captained the French giants to the Heineken Cup in 2013.

    In the semi-final, he returned to Twickenham to face Saracens, and he put on a vintage kicking display to remind the HQ faithful of his glory years.

    Seven penalties and a drop goal ensured a 24-12 win, the drop goal coming under intense pressure from the man who looks set to assume Wilkinson’s mantle for England, Owen Farrell.

5. 2003 vs. Australia, Sydney

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    The crowning moment of Wilkinson’s career came in the 2003 World Cup final when he kicked England to glory with his last-minute drop goal in extra-time.

    During the game he amassed 17 points and set up Jason Robinson for his first half try.

    Under intolerable pressure, Wilkinson’s tireless hours of practice and obsession to detail bore fruit with that swing of his wrong foot to claim the Webb Ellis Trophy.

    It wasn’t his or England’s finest display, but it was emblematic of a player and a side who knew how to win under the most pressurized of circumstances.

4. 2007 vs. Scotland, Twickenham

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    The final whistle of the 2003 World Cup final may have signaled party time for Wilkinson and England, but it also marked the end of the first, injury-free chapter of his career.

    The next four years were a catalogue of injury followed by comeback, followed by injury. By 2007, his body was finally holding itself together again, in time to find form and fitness ahead of England’s defence of their World Cup title. Wilkinson had not played a Test match since the second Test of the 2005 Lions tour.

    He hadn’t played for England since the World Cup final.

    No one knew quite what to expect from this rebuilt, Wilko Mark 2, and yet, by the end of his first England match for four years, it was as though that intervening period had never happened.

    He amassed 27 points in a 42-10 win, scoring five penalties, two conversions and crowning his return with a try. It was difficult for the rugby press to keep a lid on the hyperbole following this display, so the Guardian’s Rob Kitson didn’t even bother to try.

    When a single participant stretches the art of the possible as extraordinarily far as Wilkinson does, normal rules no longer apply. Imagine Tiger Woods missing 30 major championships in a row then shooting a 63 in his comeback at the Open Championship. Or Roger Federer strolling into Wimbledon after an injury-strewn three-year sabbatical and not dropping a set in the first week. Wilkinson, if he was not up there already, now belongs in that rarefied stratum. It is not just England who are lucky to have him but the entire rugby world.

3. 2003 vs. New Zealand, Wellington

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    England’s summer tour of New Zealand and Australia was their last acid test before the 2003 World Cup.

    They faced New Zealand in a rain-soaked, windswept Wellington and played a suffocating brand of rugby that shackled the expansive ambitions of the hosts in awful conditions.

    Wilkinson, needing a man to hold the ball on the tee such was the strength of the wind, was faultless with the boot, kicking two penalties in the first half to keep the scores level and nailing his next from almost on halfway.

    England then went down to 13 men as Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio spent time in the sin bin, but they famously held out, and as Back returned, Wilkinson slotted another penalty from the touchline.

    He stretched the lead to 15-6 with a snap drop goal after good pressure from England, and the All Blacks were left with a mountain to climb.

    A Doug Howlett try got them back in with a shout, but England’s defence was resolute, and Wilkinson was their hero.

2. 2003 vs. France, Sydney

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    England were unspectacular in their progress to the final of the 2003 World Cup but unspectacular was exactly what was needed on a dripping-wet night against France in the semi-final.

    Despite an early try from Serge Betsen, the Red Rose brigade knew they had their opponents’ number in these conditions, and they had just the man to execute the plan.

    Wilkinson kicked them to death with three drop goals and five penalties, accounting for each and every one of England's 24 points.

1. 2002 vs. New Zealand, Twickenham

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    England were gathering momentum in the build-up to the 2003 World Cup, and this win over New Zealand stretched their home record to 16 victories on the trot.

    Wilkinson’s display was the most buccaneering he produced in his entire 97 England caps, kicking 16 points and scoring a virtuoso try after spotting a pocket of space where the New Zealand full-back should have been and collecting his own chip to dot down under the posts.

    For a player regarded as a low-risk, percentages man, this was a side to Wilkinson never seen before or after in an England shirt.