Not even retirement stopped Jonny Wilkinson driving French giants Toulon to European rugby history, and now his first year after hanging up his boots also includes the award of a CBE.
England’s World Cup-winning hero brought the curtain down on a glittering career in 2014 by masterminding Toulon’s second-straight Heineken Cup win.
The 36-year-old then spent this season with a part-time skills coaching role at the Cote d’Azur club, inspiring the Stade Mayol men to the inaugural Champions Cup crown, an unprecedented third European title in a row.
Wilkinson suffered a 1,169-day injury-enforced Test absence after dropping England to World Cup glory in 2003, heightening the sweetness of his stellar Indian summer on the French Riviera.
Wilkinson’s 2003 World Cup team-mate Lewis Moody hailed the former Newcastle star’s CBE, awarded in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, as yet more indication of the enormity of his late-career achievements with Toulon.
“I know my first club Leicester were desperate to sign him at times during his playing career,” Moody told Press Association Sport of Wilkinson, who joined Toulon in 2009 after 12 years with Newcastle.
“For the absolutely amazing talent he was and the work ethic he had, at international level he was just scintillating to watch.
“At club level he was still as good but never got to perform on the biggest stages with Newcastle.
“So it was really nice for me as a player to see him finally get the opportunity to play regularly in those biggest tournaments and succeed.”
Wilkinson was the subject of groundless rumours he would receive a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List, leading to a twitter mix-up that even seemed to dupe the star himself.
Any hangover from that mild embarrassment has not dulled the royal regard for England’s most famous rugby player of all time and a playmaker who redefined the duties of the modern fly-half.
Wilkinson abandoned intentions to study at Durham University in favour of professional rugby with Newcastle Falcons in 1997, making his England debut as an 18-year-old in April 1998.
His 91-cap England career spanned 13 years, four World Cups and six caps for the British and Irish Lions, but the crowning glory will forever remain the 2003 World Cup victory.
Wilkinson dropped the extra-time goal to see off Australia 20-17 in Sydney, a moment long since etched into a nation’s consciousness.
The BBC Sports Personality of the Year award duly followed, and so too the MBE, later elevated to OBE in 2004.
Wilkinson later led England to the final of the 2007 World Cup, only for Brian Ashton’s men to fall short against South Africa in Paris.
His retirement from Test rugby in December 2011 then precipitated a stunning resurgence with French giants Toulon.
Surrounded by many of the world’s top names and talents, Wilkinson thrived, helping Toulon to the second-tier European Challenge Cup title in 2012.
Toulon lost the French Top 14 final that year and again in 2013, but Wilkinson drove the squad back in ever-more fierce fashion.
That 2013 league defeat was eased by the first of those three consecutive European titles that season – and in 2014 Wilkinson bowed out of rugby altogether by spearheading Toulon’s Heineken Cup and Top 14 double.
“Jonny yearns for success: because he wants to be the best he can be, but also because he doesn’t want to let his team-mates down,” said former Leicester and Bath flanker Moody.
“Toulon invested a great deal in him, but he repaid that in abundance.
“He drove them to two European titles, and then laid the foundations for a third.
“It must have been a wonderful way to go out and end your rugby career in that manner.
“And that success was fitting for him really, because he’d given so much to the game.
“I think the change was as important as anything else in allowing him to finish his career in style.
“Jonny loves new challenges, whether that’s learning to play the guitar or becoming fluent in French, he throws himself into anything until he’s mastered it.”
Wilkinson’s exploits in Toulon will always pale in significance next to that World Cup triumph in the eyes of the English, with Moody still extolling the fly-half’s virtues 12 years on.
“It was the absolute pinnacle of your rugby career, the euphoria that came from winning something you knew how hard it had been to achieve,” said Moody of the 2003 World Cup win.
“For Jonny it was a pivotal and iconic moment, dropping that goal off his weaker foot.
“For all of us in that squad, there’s a special bond.
“Jonny was a kindred spirit on the field, someone you knew would fight toe-to-toe.
“There was a group of players you would want alongside you in any situation, and Jonny was always in that bracket.”
Source BT SPORT