About 10½ years ago, on November 22nd 2003 to be exact, I joined 82,956 other people at Sydney’s Olympic stadium (I’ve lost track of which sponsor it is named after at the moment, maybe ANZ? …or possibly Telstra?) to witness the final of the Rugby World Cup.
The game between Australia and England was a classic – truly one of those ‘had to be there’ moments. It was eventually won by England, 20-17 in extra time, courtesy of a drop goal from the right boot of English fly half, Jonny Wilkinson.
Just about every self-respecting Pom living in Sydney at the time was there (or later, claimed to be there), along with thousands of visiting supporters, turning vast swathes of seating at the cavernous stadium white for the evening.
That moment – probably my best sporting experience whilst living in Sydney – has been brought back into focus this last week with the news that England’s match winner on that night is about to play his last ever game of rugby tomorrow before retiring.
Since that glorious night in Sydney, Jonny’s career has seen him blighted with injury, but still going on to become England’s highest ever points scorer by a massive margin before retiring from international rugby in 2011.
Since 2009, he has been playing his club rugby in France for the Toulon club where again success has followed him, culminating last weekend with a triumph in the Heineken Cup, Europe’s premier club competition against Saracens from England.
Given the respect he commands in his homeland, I dare say that even the most diehard Saracens supporter would have secretly been quite pleased to see Jonny go out on top.
Now, he just has the French Top 14 final to go and then it is goodbye Jonny.
But, whilst sportsmen retire all the time, it is not just his incredible successes on the field that make his retirement so notable, it is the character of the man.
By all accounts, he is an obsessive character – throughout his career he regularly stayed behind on the training field, long after his team mates had left, to keep practising his kicking, in search of perfection.
And despite not being particularly big (5’10”) in a game full of giants, he was fearless in the tackle, regularly chopping down players far more physically endowed. This bravery endeared him to fans and probably also contributed to his injury record.
But he is also an extremely modest man, reluctant to be cast as the star.
In a recent interview he has repeatedly said how undeserving he is of all the accolades:
“I’ve tried to keep my feet on the ground because otherwise someone is going to realise I’m a bit of a fraud,” he said, following last weekend’s Heineken Cup triumph.”
And he went further:
“I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’ve been over-supported and given way too much respect. I’ve been given an easy life compared to others who deserved more and haven’t had it.”
And you get the feeling that he is not being disingenuous here – he really doesn’t think he is a star and certainly doesn’t crave the limelight
What a refreshing change from the arrogance and overblown sense of importance many modern day sports people exhibit along with a complete loss of perspective.
Hopefully he will bow out with yet another trophy to his name tomorrow, before enjoying the start of his richly deserved life after rugby
Farewell Jonny and thanks for the memories, especially that night in Sydney.