Early in 2011, with Jonny Wilkinson settling in to a regular position on the England bench for the first time in more than a decade, it seemed appropriate – as he was one of the few remaining links with the 2003 World Cup side and he’d spent most of the intervening years in and out of the team because of injury – to welcome him back. 

This was written in February 2011.

Sport, like life is cyclical.  Teams come, teams go.  Players rise, players fall.  Empires are built, and then – as with the West Indies cricket team or England after Woodward – they crumble.  Teams and players start at the bottom, their only advantage being youthful promise, ascend to the heights, and then end up back where they started.

So it is with Jonny Wilkinson.

In many ways April 1998 doesn’t seem long ago, but, in the terms of an average professional sportsman’s career, thirteen years is about as long as you’re going to get.  Stick around for longer than that at the top and you’re doing very well.  To do so you must start young, and you must also have the talent, physical conditioning, tactical adaptability and desire to still be playing to the required standard when most of the people you started your career with are long gone.

This is why it’s been so great to watch the man who was once the boy called Jonny these past few weeks.  First kicking Munster while they were down and putting them out of the Heineken Cup early for the first time in living memory on an afternoon of liquid sunshine at a tumultuous Stade Felix Mayol, then replacing Toby Flood to apply the final touches to England’s defeat of Wales on a Friday night in Cardiff and then that of Italy at the ground he knows best.

When Wilkinson replaced Mike Catt late in England’s victory over Ireland at Twickenham in April 1998 he was barely more than a small boy with a huge reputation.  He had made the long journey from Surrey to Newcastle, and Woodward knew and liked him enough to introduce him to his side before his nineteenth birthday.  Soon after this he went to Australia and New Zealand on the ‘Tour from Hell’, a doomed expedition from which many players’ careers never recovered, and his reputation seemed to grow by osmosis.  When I first saw him at Kingsholm in the autumn of that year, sweating and breathless after the Falcons’ defeat by Gloucester in a terrific match, he was surrounded by admirers and those who simply wondered what it was that a small, relatively frail, unfailingly polite, young man had.

Some of the gaps in people’s knowledge were filled the following season, when he played in the centre, tackling everything that moved and kicking anything that didn’t through the posts.  By the end of that season it was difficult to imagine an England team without him, and it was only a matter of time before he was allowed to wear his favoured fly-half’s shirt on a permanent basis.

During the period between England’s truncated and unsuccessful World Cup campaign in the Northern Hemisphere autumn of 1999 and their winning of the cup in Sydney in November 2003, he became the team’s fulcrum.  While he could never be expected to stand out with ball in hand in a team with such a wide range of talents, he could always be relied upon to kick and drop his goals. In a team which went further in the pursuit of the elusive concept of ‘total rugby’ than any other to wear the red rose, he lent the collective a constantly reassuring sense of balance, direction and calmness.  He was England’s safety blanket.

In truth they rarely needed one, but, on the odd occasion when the ship needed steadying, Jonny was always there.  By the time the World Cup was brought home, it seemed that he always would be.

Then, though, largely as a result of ill-fortune, things changed.  The injuries mounted, the presence faded, and the great days appeared forgotten.  An especially salient and poignant memory from those years is of a newspaper picture of Wilkinson waiting outside a hospital in the north-east after a shoulder operation.  He looked vulnerable and diminished, an anonymous young man with a rucksack on his shoulder and an uncertain future in his eyes.  It was necessary to remind yourself that this was a man who had once bestrode the world of rugby like a colossus.

These were lost years for both Wilkinson and England.  The shambolic Lions’ tour to New Zealand in 2005 reminded many that he could still play the game, but he faded back into relative obscurity soon afterwards.  Travelling by car to a match in Cornwall with friends on a brilliantly sunny morning in January 2006, I wondered aloud what the response of the Twickenham crowd would be when – perhaps it was if – Wilkinson played there for England again.

In February 2007 he finally did so, his appearance against Scotland being the first time he had played there in the Six Nations Championship for almost four years.  He kicked and dropped his goals and finished the match with a try, awarded in error by the Television Match Official.  If this was seen by anyone as a rebirth which would lead to Wilkinson and his team resuming their place at the summit of the world game, they were sadly mistaken.  While he played a full part in England’s unexpected run to the final of the World Cup in France in the autumn of 2007, the inescapable, uncomfortable, truth was that he was a member of what was still a transitional side.  After playing in the 2008 Six Nations Championship, at the end of which he was dropped from England’s starting line-up for the first time since the 1999 World Cup, he entered another injury-filled twilight zone, missing the 2009 Championship completely before returning to the side in the autumn of that year.  This was a poisoned chalice, as England, now under the managerial command of Wilkinson’s erstwhile captain Martin Johnson, were still searching, uneasily and vainly, for a consistently successful playing style.  By the end of the competition, which saw a developing team take the lead in Paris in memorable style before ultimately losing, he was once again among England’s substitutes, a position in which he has remained, overshadowed by the evolving prowess of Toby Flood.

Since his move to Toulon in the summer of 2009 Wilkinson has remained consistently fit for the first time since before the 2003 World Cup and he obviously relishes the physical and emotional freedom which he derives from playing outside England.  He is now a more marginal member of the national squad, but he remains vividly redolent of an era which now seems a long time gone and which may never quite return.  Wilkinson, though, is unsentimental about this transition, acknowledging the psychological adjustment which he has been required to make in order to fulfil his new role.

‘The last time I was in this position was at the start of my career.  I’ve taken great inspiration from guys like Mike Catt and Paul Grayson.  I remember being in the team when these guys weren’t and the way they helped me.  That’s what I’m trying to do now.’

Even now, though, as the sight of him departing the frustrated security of the bench for the maelstrom of a pulsating international becomes more familiar, and as the lines in his tanned face become more pronounced, Wilkinson still looks and seems like the boy with the sanguine, analytical nature and the iron discipline who came into Woodward’s England side so long ago.

He will never really be old.

February 2011