Dan Carter has described how Jonny Wilkinson – “the ultimate professional” – inspired him to climb to the summit of world rugby.
The 100-cap New Zealand fly-half admitted that the England World Cup winner set new standards on and off the pitch, which motivated rivals, such as Carter, to strive to emulate Wilkinson’s extraordinary work ethic.
Wilkinson is set to retire in the summer after 17 years of professional rugby with Newcastle Falcons, Toulon, England and the British and Irish Lions.
The 34-year-old can still close his glittering career with a second consecutive European Cup title, with holders Toulon hosting Munster in the last four of the final Heineken Cup.
Carter said Wilkinson’s exemplary attitude and determination forced him to raise his own personal standards, helping him forge a lasting career with the Crusaders and the All Blacks.
“If I was thinking about the best rugby players of all time he would be up there,” Carter said.
“What he’s done for the game both on and off the field, he’s played for a lot of years, had a lot of tough times through injury.
“But to see him fight his way back and achieve what he has over in France, it’s just a huge testament to the guy and the character that he is.
“He’s the ultimate professional, probably works harder than any other player in the world, and he deserves all the accolades, rewards and success he’s had throughout his career.
“I don’t model my game on any player specifically, but he’s definitely a player I hold in high regard.
“When I came on to the international scene in 2003 he was at his prime, and he was a player that everyone was looking forward to watching.
“Just watching him and the way he went about his work, you heard and you could see the hard work that he put in on the training paddock.
“So for me to try to get to his level, I realised I had to work extremely hard, so I guess I learned that from him, that you can’t fluke success.”
Jonny Wilkinson faces a race against time to stop his career ending on an unhappy note after being injured in his final home outing for Toulon.
Quarter-final victory for the European champions brought down the curtain on one legend’s Heineken Cup career as three-time winner Brian O’Driscoll bowed out with Leinster.
But the concern last night was that it could signal the end for another, as Wilkinson lasted less than half an hour before his right hamstring went again.
Like O’Driscoll, the England great will hang up his boots next month and Toulon will be desperate to have him fit for their semi-final against Munster in three weeks’ time.
But that remains in doubt after Wilkinson limped off to a standing ovation on what was almost certainly his last appearance at Stade Mayol.
He was hit by a recurrence of the hamstring strain he suffered a fortnight ago against Clermont.
“It didn’t feel as bad as it did last time,” Wilkinson said. “But I couldn’t
Although he sat out last week’s league win over Toulouse, the magnitude of yesterday’s clash forced Toulon to gamble on their talisman. It was a gamble that backfired in the 26th minute when he kicked for touch and pulled up in pain.
After treatment he tried to play on but was unable to do so.
The 34-year-old will have a scan today with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal admitting: “I don’t know if that was Jonny’s last game at Mayol. We took some chance fielding him.
“What is for sure is that life is going to be complicated without him. He’s brought real magic to this club. That type of player is very hard to replace.”
The post-match omens were more encouraging as Wilkinson, who kicked two penalties before he was forced off, returned to the field to embrace O’Driscoll following a game decided by two second-half tries.
Concern for the World Cup winner was matched only by bemusement among many at England’s continued refusal to pick Steffon Armitage, who stole the show with an astonishing display of power and pace.
Red Rose chiefs have a policy of not selecting players based overseas yet after watching him, Sir Clive Woodward tweeted: “v v impressive – pick your best players??”
Toulon booked their place in the Heineken Cup semi-finals thanks to a hard-fought 29-14 win over Leinster at the Stade Felix Mayol on Sunday.
Xavier Chiocci and Drew Mitchell scored second-half tries while Matt Giteau kicked 10 points to steer the holders through as 29-14 victors. Jonny Wilkinson also kicked two penalties before he was forced off during the first half through injury. Delon Armitage kicked a penalty while brother Steffon was named Man of the Match following a dynamic display.
Jordi Murphy grabbed a late try for Leinster but that was too late to rescue the visitors in what was to be Brian O’Driscoll’s final appearance in the Heineken Cup. Between them these teams had lifted the trophy four times in the last five years yet this was their first meeting in the tournament.
Wilkinson kicked Toulon into a 6-0 lead though it was only some desperate Leinster defending that prevented it from being more. Toulon, roared on by their vociferous support at the sun-drenched Stade Felix-Mayol, began at a thunderous pace, led by Mathieu Bastareaud.
The powerful French centre was twice involved in the build up to the first of Wilkinson’s penalty inside four minutes after Juan Smith went close. Wilkinson then put David Smith through and only a crucial interception by Rob Kearney prevented a score.
That was to prove a recurring theme during the first half as Toulon were knocked off their stride by Leinster and wasted several chances. Giteau evaded Rhys Ruddock, Mitchell broke clear and twice Craig Burden made inroads but all came to nothing amid catalogue of handling errors.
More mistakes also resulted in Wilkinson, forced to clear the danger following a dropped pass and blocked kick, trudging off injured in the 28th minute following a heavy collision. And Jimmy Gopperth’s two kicks ensured Leinster went in level 6-6 at half-time amid a chorus of whistles and boos from the restless home crowd.
Jeers turned to cheers when Toulon burst into a 10-point lead just five minutes into the second half. Giteau struck from close to the halfway line, having missed an earlier effort from a similar range. The former Wallaby then followed another searing break by livewire hooker Burden. Juan Smith and Danie Rossouw were stopped short before prop Chiocci crashed over from close range.
Gopperth clawed back three points but the game turned once Toulon made their passes stick. Rossouw disrupted a Leinster lineout that had been erratic throughout and Steffon Armitage hacked ahead.
Armitage showed tremendous pace to win the foot race and Bastareaud crashed through three tackles before Mitchell shrugged off Gordon D’Arcy to score a vital try on 62 minutes. Giteau converted and Delon Armitage added a penalty from the halfway line as Toulon established a commanding 26-9 lead.
Leinster showed their mettle when they responded with a well-worked try – Murphy was bundled over from a lineout drive five metres out 10 minutes from time. However Gopperth missed the conversion from the touchline and Toulon remained just out of sight. The hosts ended the game with 14 men when Florian Fresia was binned for a dangerous tackle on Reddan yet it was they who had the last word.
Kearney’s tackle denied David Smith a score but Giteau followed with his fourth kick to settle the tie in the final minutes and secured Toulon’s semi-final against Munster at Marseille’s Stade Veledrome.
One of the reasons for the success and longevity Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O’Driscoll have enjoyed in their careers is their facility for stripping away emotion, blotting out the extraneous and focusing on each game. The two most famous players in these isles in the professional era have been the centre of attention in the buildup to Sunday afternoon’s Heineken Cup quarter-final between Toulon and Leinster, but to them it is just another step on a road paved with silver.
O’Driscoll is retiring at the end of the season, having set a record of 141 international caps for Ireland and the Lions, and Wilkinson is expected to follow, having retired from international rugby at the end of 2011 three caps short of his century, 91 for England. The pair were both born in 1979 – Wilkinson is the younger by four months – they both made their international debuts at the end of the 1990s, went on their first Lions tour together in 2001, have both played in more than 300 senior games and have won trophies at club and international level, although only Wilkinson has a World Cup-winners’ medal. Fame has changed neither man whose detachment has given them an immunity from hype throughout their careers.
“Never mind romantic notions, I just want to win a game,” said O’Driscoll before Leinster left for Toulon, where Wilkinson has been based since swapping the north of England for the south of France in 2009. “It will be nice to have a chat with Brian after the game,” said Wilkinson, “but we are both people who cannot bear to think about anything other than what is happening [during a match] and what you want to happen next.”
Never mind O’Driscoll and Wilkinson, one of whom will on Sunday evening be left with the prospect of a league title as a swansong, Toulon’s meeting with Leinster, the Heineken Cup holders against the team who had had possession of the trophy for two years, looks the tie of the round. Leinster are Heineken Cup habitués, success finally coming after years of heartache, while Toulon are making only their third appearance at this stage, all since 2011 when their owner Mourad Boudjellal’s largesse took them from the second division in France to European rugby’s top table.
“Not many of us have played in Toulon, but we know what to expect against the holders who have a proud home record and are doing well in the Top 14,” said the Leinster flanker, Shane Jennings. “There are a lot of new challenges for us, but the basic principle remains the same: we are going into a hostile environment to take on a physical pack and a dangerous backline. It will be a test for us as a group of men and we have to understand what it will take to get across the line.”
Toulon have lost at home only twice in the past two seasons. If they have not been as free-scoring in the Top 14 this season, they averaged 42 points in their three Heineken Cup group matches at home and only Ulster and Saracens scored more points in total, both profiting from having an Italian team in their groups.
“The Heineken Cup is different to the Top 14,” said the Toulon scrum-half Michael Claassens, who joined from Bath two seasons ago. “The games flow more and the guys like playing in the tournament. You play a bit more rugby, but Leinster will be our toughest game of the season. They have a large number of international players who have played at the highest level for years. You hope sides get intoxicated by the atmosphere when they come here, but I do not think Leinster will. It will just be another game on a different field for them.”
It is, for Wilkinson and O’Driscoll, another game and nothing matters more than winning it. “Toulon are there to be knocked off their perch, which is where we were in previous years,” said O’Driscoll. “We want to get back there. I did not play on for one more year to get a pay packet. I wanted to win silverware: you get a bit more selfish when you get a taste for success. You want more and more of it. Thankfully, one trophy has been won this year and I would like to add another couple.”
Whichever team win, the pair will seek each other out afterwards. “I have loved playing against and alongside Brian,” Wilkinson said. “There is a superhuman angle of some of the things he does that transcends the game. He has made the game of rugby a better sport and thank God he’s been there and still is there. Without him, it would not be quite as good.”
No centre has scored more tries in the history of international rugby than O’Driscoll and only the All Blacks’ Daniel Carter has scored more points than Wilkinson. “I admired Jonny when I played alongside him because I understood the subtlety to his game,” O’Driscoll said. “He has a number of great attributes, not least his goal-kicking and tackling, but what stands out for me is the quality of his pass. He can cut teams with the range of his passes, some delicate with his soft hands. We are probably both surprised to be still going at this stage and it is nice to be in the mix.”
If few rugby players become household names, then even fewer become national treasures. Strange, then, that on Sunday in the south of France two of them will be on an international stage together, one almost certainly for the last time.
In the blue corner from Leinster, Brian O'Driscoll; in the red (and black) of Toulon, Jonny Wilkinson. In purely physical terms they may be a couple of lightweights at 5ft 10in apiece, but as rugby heavyweights you wonder whether we'll see their like again, at least in the northern hemisphere.
O'Driscoll has had to reinvent himself three or four times on his way to a remarkable 141 Test caps, 133 for Ireland, first as a fleet-of-foot No13 who would beat his man on the outside or inside, more recently as a 200lb thinking man's outside-centre who wouldn't look out of place in a Test back row.
Wilkinson, at 34 a year younger than the Leinster man he faces on Sunday, had to be satisfied with 97 caps (91 for his country) but how many more would he have amassed had the surgeons not had to put him back together time after time? Everyone remembers the knee, the arm, the shoulder, the kidney, but it's nevertheless strange to think that Wilkinson was out of the England team from the time he kicked that drop goal to win a World Cup in Australia in 2003 to the start of the 2007 Six Nations.
What a gamble, then – and what a bargain – when Toulon signed him. After 11 seasons at Newcastle, there was plenty to suggest that the Wilkinson body couldn't take much more. Instead Toulon have had four injury‑free (almost) seasons and, according to Olivier Azam, the Cheltenham restaurateur and French forwards coach, it was Wilkinson who pulled the disparate collection of stars together to win the European title Toulon defend in Sunday's quarter-final. (There were also 17 consecutive penalties, but that's another matter.)
The common denominator? Both O'Driscoll and Wilkinson are obviously talented; what sets them apart is the willingness to learn and improve.
Listen to Joe Schmidt and Ireland's coach will tell you that O'Driscoll still works as hard as anyone who has played the game. Wilkinson? The determination that became a possibly damaging obsession was there from the moment he joined Rob Andrew, Steve Bates and me at Newcastle.
Remember, this was the dawn of professional rugby and the three of us, having left Wasps, were trying to work out where the sport was going. There was no map, no example to follow; we had to work it out for ourselves.
Strangely, though, among a side of seasoned professionals it was an 18-year-old, just out of school, who understood best what was needed.
Initially he was our water boy, ferrying drinks and instructions in places such as Perpignan where, in those days, it didn't come much tougher. Players and officials needed a cage to cover the tunnel as they emerged from the changing rooms but from those situations Wilkinson learned and he worked.
There wasn't a part of the game in which he did not want to become involved.
The Newcastle team that won the title in 1998 was the best I've played with. In Inga Tuigamala (said by some to be rugby's first £1m signing; I wouldn't know, even though I was there when the deal was done) and Pat Lam we had two guys to whom you could give the ball and expect them to score. Inga played on the wing and in the centre with Alan Tait, while Gary Armstrong was scrum-half.
In Andrew we had a goal-kicking fly-half who was no shrinking violet. He tackled, but not like Wilkinson. There were times when it made the eyes water. No matter how often you told him to stand back, let others do the physical stuff, it made no difference and shuddering defence came to characterise his game as much as his kicking did.
From the time he took over, playing inside-centre to Andrew at fly-half, to Test rugby was less than a season. Normally you'd expect a player to take two or three years but Wilko was still 18 when he was named against Scotland. Oddly we were on the bench together for that game. The difference was that he was looking towards his debut, whereas this was second time around for me.
My Test debut eight years earlier was followed by a bit of a gap and, while he said I looked calm at the team announcement, I can promise you that we were both churning inside. However, the only time Wilko betrayed his youth was at the post-match Ireland party when, with rounds at the Grosvenor costing an arm and a leg, he had to borrow a few bob to stand his corner.
My guess is that was probably the only time, barring a hairy afternoon in Paris c/o Serge Betsen, that Wilko looked ruffled on the international stage until he retired from Test rugby three years ago. Not that he stopped learning.
There was a time, between 2000 to 2003, when he was probably the most influential, if not the best, player in world rugby yet he still sought to broaden his game and add an attacking edge. Like the best he turned to the best for inspiration, studying Jason Robinson's footwork in an attempt to add that extra dimension. Typical.
Whatever Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O'Driscoll do after their retirements from playing this summer, they know nothing will replace the adrenaline rush of "do or die games", as Wilkinson described this afternoon's Heineken Cup quarter-final between Toulon and Leinster in the south of France.
As the home club's chant of "Pilou, Pilou" reverberates from the harbourside Stade Mayol to the Alpine outcrop of the Massif des Maures and back again, both the celebrated England fly-half and the eminent Ireland centre will know that defeat will end their long career in European competitions.
Neither man has said much yet about the future. Wilkinson may stay in Toulon to tutor their goal-kickers, although he has a part-time role as a 2015 World Cup ambassador to take care of.
O'Driscoll may become a house-husband to his actress wife Amy Huberman in the short term; he has been tipped equally as a coach or media pundit in the longer run.
Heineken Cup-wise, O'Driscoll is the master: his 86 Heineken Cup appearances and 33 tries are far superior to the 27 matches and one try on Wilkinson's CV, largely due to the latter's formative years being spent with the down-at-heel Newcastle Falcons. But Wilkinson is the man playing for the cup holders today. Toulon won the final against Clermont Auvergne last season; coincidentally, in Dublin.
The Leinster No 8 Jamie Heaslip – who, together with the currently injured flanker Sean O'Brien, turned down transfer bids from Toulon in recent months, grudgingly witnessed the excited crowds from his then house in Ringsend, not far from the Aviva Stadium. "It did make me a little bit jealous," Heaslip said, even though, like O'Driscoll, he is a three-time Heineken winner.
O'Driscoll is credited by Bernard Jackman, the former Leinster and Ireland hooker who is now head at Grenoble in the French Top 14, with a major role in Leinster overhauling Ireland's original European trailblazers, Munster.
"When we turned things around, finishing top of the Magners League in 2008 and winning the Heineken Cup in 2009, it was because of him," Jackman told Rugby World magazine. "He refused to accept shoddy standards, and turned us from a spineless set-up into a better team."
Newspaper reports revealed on Monday that the fly-half is set to hang up his goal-laden boots at the end of the campaign, almost 11 years after kicking England to glory in the World Cup.
The 34-year-old remained vague on his future plans during a chat with The Rugby Club, but did explain that he is hopeful of adding to his trophy collection – which includes a Premiership win with Newcastle – this term.
Hoisting the Heineken Cup aloft with Toulon for the second season running remains a possibility, with the French outfit battling Leinster in the quarter-finals on Sunday week.
But Wilkinson insists only hard work, not dreaming of a “fairy-tale ending”, will make that happen.
“The thought of being able to continue in the Heineken Cup is an exciting one as to know that you are closer to the opportunity to lift silverware is what it is all about,” said Wilkinson, whose side currently sit third in the Top 14, the spot they have finished in for the past two years.
“But I tend not to focus too much on fairy-tale endings as you then work backwards – and the game of rugby is not like that for me.
“It is a day-by-day, forward-moving thing, where you get out there and give it everything every day to try and get better and help the team get better.
"If you don’t do that throughout the week, then the weekend gets harder.”
Will Greenwood and Martin Corry won the World Cup alongside Wilkinson in 2003 and both were glowing in their praise of the London-born star when they entered The Rugby Club studio.
Greenwood explained how Wilkinson changed the mentality of senior players within the Red Rose camp.
And Corry – who also teamed with the goal kicker in the 2007 World Cup, in which England recovered from a 36-0 humbling against South Africa in the pool stage to make the final – revealed the effect he had on his colleagues.
Greenwood said: “We all wished to win and wanted to win but Jonny taught us what it took to go out there and make that win happen.
“His dedication to his training – not just from the goal-kicking perspective but from a personal fitness point of view – was quite frightening.
“It was a stark realisation for those that had come through the amateur era and thought this was all a bit of a laugh that it wasn’t good enough just to be there.
“He changed the mindset of a lot of senior players – even after two or three caps.”
Corry added: “What he doesn’t get enough credit for is his smartness and his ability to bring the best out of himself and the players around him – and that’s where he really stepped forward in 2007.
“After the heavy defeat to South Africa everyone was looking around for solutions and Wilko remained a calming and authoritative influence and everyone stood up and took note.”
To view the interview with Jonny click on the link below
Dan Carter has hailed Jonny Wilkinson as one of the greatest players in history as England’s World Cup hero prepares to retire.
Wilkinson is expected to walk away from the sport at the end of Toulon’s season, bringing the curtain down on a glittering 17-year career.
All Blacks fly-half Carter said: ‘He’s had an amazing career. I’ve huge respect for Jonny and everything he’s achieved.
‘He’s the ultimate professional and to have a career that he’s had, he should be very proud of everything he’s achieved. I guess we’re pretty lucky in rugby to have a player of his calibre and quality, not only on the pitch but also off as well.
‘He’s right up there with the top players that rugby has ever produced. Just the way he went about his work, I guess the detail of his work ethic and then obviously getting the rewards for all the hard work that he’s done.
‘A fly-half needs to direct the team around and he did exactly that. He was a courageous player as well. In terms of defence, not many No 10s could tackle the way he does, and his body probably paid for it for a while with his shoulder injuries.
‘Even returning now, he’s a guy that will put his body on the line every time he puts his team’s jersey on.’
Wilkinson was understood to be considering another year in the sport and Carter believes the 34-year-old could have managed a further two seasons.
‘I’m sure he can probably play another couple of years, the way he’s playing for Toulon,’ Carter said, speaking ahead of the Laureus World Sports Awards. ‘But huge respect to a player that I’ve always looked up to.’
Referring to Wilkinson’s World Cup-winning drop goal against Australia in 2003, Carter added: ‘I’m sure there’s a lot of children out there trying to replicate that at their local club. I guess a drop goal to win a World Cup, it’s a dream moment.
‘Being in that situation, it’s not an easy one to do. But he made it look easy and I guess it’s just reward for all the hard work that he puts in.’
Extra-time against Australia, a trading of penalties, 17-17, the clock ticking, a few seconds remaining, an England line-out, a dart by Matt Dawson, a rumble by Martin Johnson, back it comes to Wilkinson, on to his right foot, three drop goals already missed that night but not this little beauty.
2. Feb 19, 2000: France 9 England 15
England’s march to the 2003 World Cup final might well have begun here with this tackle.
England had not beaten France in Paris in six years. A few months earlier they had lost a World Cup quarter-final there (against South Africa). Now, as half time approached, France were on the attack, France wing Emile Ntamack came on a cut-back run only to be dumped on his backside by a thumping Wilkinson tackle. The kid had arrived.
3. Kingston Park, Newcastle: Any morning, any week, any year
Wilkinson had been honoured at a dinner in London the night before.-
I had flown up early to interview Rob Andrew and was there by 9am. It was early, but not early enough to beat Wilkinson to the training paddock. Despite a late finish a few hundred miles to the south, he was out there, in the wind and rain, with a bag of balls over his shoulder, ready for another lonely stint on his own, as content as could be.
4. West coast of Ireland: August, mid-2000s
On the trail of yet another Wilkinson comeback from injury.
The fly-half came through unscathed in a game against Connacht and as the summer day refused to die, the clock moving towards 11pm, there was Wilkinson patiently signing autograph after autograph. The fly-half’s innate politeness masked his inner terror. Wilkinson hated being a singular object of worship yet he rarely demurred.
5. Match day: Stade Mayol, Toulon
The pre-match arrival of the team bus is as celebrated an event as the game itself in Toulon.
The stadium is in the centre of the town, hemmed in by tenement blocks and shopping centres. The team do not seek cover from the several thousand that always gather in this spot. They alight from the bus and walk through the throng, with chants ringing out. Even Jonny indulges this communion with the public, as settled in Toulon as he has ever been.
We are not Jonny Wilkinson or affiliated with him in any way. I am a woman for a start, but i would love to be able to play like him. I do not know Jonny personally, and I have no way of contacting him other than writing to the fan mail address, like anyone can do. As a result, please do not spam my inbox with messages for Jonny unless I'm making a fan book for him.
As far as I know all the photos I use are my own or ones given to me by others, and if this is not the case I will take any down that are not.