(Reuters) – Only Jonny Wilkinson, as a 24-year-old who had just landed the last-gasp drop goal that spectacularly won the 2003 Rugby World Cup for England, could immediately think: “Oh well, can’t top that, my career’s going to be all downhill from here.”
Only Wilkinson could, when asked in a news conference during that tournament if he was “turning into a basket case”, ponder, then give a long and reasoned answer suggesting that, all things considered, he probably was.
Only Wilkinson could look back at a career where he won 97 England and Lions caps, scored 1,246 test points, won the Six Nations four times, won the Premiership with Newcastle, won the European Cup twice and French league with Toulon, and say “That’s nothing”, explaining that the best part of his time as a professional was how he developed as a person by having to deal with injury adversity.
Few sportsmen could surely ever have worked more obsessively to be the best he possibly could, but having achieved greatness, few could have struggled so much to deal with the expectation, much of it internal, that came with it.
In the most bald terms, Wilkinson, who turns 41 on Monday, was right with his instant reaction in Sydney 17 years ago.
His superb drop-goal, off his wrong foot having previously missed three other attempts in the match, was, and remains, the pinnacle not just of his career, but of the entire history of English rugby.
He did appear in two further World Cups, reaching the final again in 2007 and quarter-final four years later (he also played in the 1999 tournament) but his career was also a story of relentless pain and damage – both physical and mental.
He had surgery on his ankle, neck, shoulder, knees and bicep. At one point he says he suffered 17 separate injuries in a four-year period, including the neck injury that kept him on the sidelines for 10 months.
Those repeated setbacks sent him into a spiral of agonising frustration and depression, which, combined with his ceaseless self-flagellation in the pursuit of perfection, threatened to see him walk away from the game when he still had much to offer.
Only once he moved to the south of France with Toulon did Wilkinson appear to become more comfortable with himself and learn to keep something of a lid on his inner demons.
For a man whose first international start was England’s humiliating 76-0 record defeat by Australia, it seemed fitting that one of the game’s greatest performers bowed out on a spectacular high.
In 2013 he was voted European player of the season as Toulon won the Heineken Cup. A year later, within eight glorious days, he captained them to a second European Cup win and then to victory in the final of the French Top 14.
In the six games of the knockout stages of those two European campaigns Wilkinson had 30 attempts at goal and missed one.
As he contemplated a retirement that has seen him develop into an astute pundit, he said: “I’ve lived 17 years where every weekend your life hangs in the balance. It might be nice now not to wake up on Saturday morning with that horrible feeling in my stomach and have to worry about the what-ifs.”
Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis