On the 27th November 2010, Dan Carter made rugby history as a penalty from halfway took him past Jonny Wilkinson’s record of 1, 178 international test points, confirming him as one of the greatest players in its history and arguably its greatest ever fly half. The man he surpassed is another considered to be one of England and rugby’s finest players.
But what exactly defines a great player, a legend of the game, a sporting icon? What is it that separates these men from the merely very good, ensuring that they will be revered long after their careers have finished? In the case of David Campese, the Australian winger who won 101 caps for his country, it was his unrivalled technical ability. In the case of England’s world cup winning captain Martin Johnson, his leadership prowess has booked his place in rugby’s hall of fame.
Wilkinson has laid significant claim to join this list, and just a brief glance at his career lends weight to his case. The man who put his career on the line for the World Cup certainly has the credentials: 80 caps at the time of writing, a record England points total, six caps for the British and Irish Lions, 2003 IRB player of the year, with many more accolades to his name.
But are caps, points and awards enough to make Wilkinson ‘great’? In my mind, the difference between these players and the ‘very good’ is something not entirely quantifiable. Great players have the ability to affect others around them, as well as impressing personally. Martin Johnson was not the most technically gifted of players, but his presence on the field lifted those around him to higher levels. It is this capacity that separates the very best players from those with similar records to their name, and it is this that Wilkinson may lack.
Commentators past and present have stated that Wilkinson does in fact possess this rare talent, and have used it to press his claims for inclusion even when he has been short of form. Then again, the majority is not always right. It has been said that Wilkinson was reliant on Matt Dawson and Will Greenwood to tell him what to do, and heavily influenced his key decisions. It is also the case that Wilkinson has always been successful when in a successful team, and while I readily admit this would naturally be the case for the vast majority of players, it is his years at Newcastle Falcons that interest me most. During the 2000s Newcastle struggled to make an impact on the Premiership, and were potential relegation candidates seemingly every year. Surely having world cup winning Jonny Wilkinson on their books would have seen them fare better. Rugby is in all aspects a team game, but great players, such as Wilkinson, are known to lift their teammates to higher levels and better performances. Compare this section of Jonny’s career with his times with England and most recently Toulon, and it does seem that he, despite his obvious talents, performs best when directed by others.
If Wilkinson does not have the rare ability to lift others around him, can he be truly considered a great of the game, someone to walk in the same company as the likes of Johnson and Campese? His natural talents and records are such that he will be revered by the English public for the foreseeable future, but this is arguably a pedestal he does not deserve, and should be reserved for someone to truly capture his nation’s hearts.