Wilkinson and Williams: two players who cut their own path in the game
England and Wales will go into next year's Six Nations without two players who came to define them this century.
World Cups tend to mark the end of a cycle. England and Wales will go into next year's Six Nations without two players who came to define them this century.
Jonny Wilkinson made a typically dignified exit from international rugby this week, nine days after Shane Williams had made his 87th and final appearance for Wales, scoring a try with his final touch of the ball in a Test match against Australia at the Millennium Stadium.
Wales lost, but Williams made a fitting exit. The pity for Wilkinson was that his final appearance for England came in the World Cup quarter-final against France at Eden Park last October, a wretched campaign ending limply. There will be no Twickenham finale for him with Toulon not in this season's Heineken Cup, unless his club free him to play for the Barbarians against England at the end of May next year.
Wilkinson played in 91 Tests for England, an astonishing number given that he missed three Six Nations campaigns and autumn Test series from 2004 because of various injuries. At one point it looked as if his final contribution in a white shirt was to be the extra-time drop goal that landed the World Cup for England in 2003, but Wilkinson reacted to every setback with equanimity, knocked back but never knocked down.
Like Williams, Wilkinson was not big for a modern international rugby player. If Williams made his natural ability make up for his lack of a physical presence, elusiveness, quick footwork and an ability to see where space would open up, Wilkinson's success was based on hard work. He may have lacked the innate talent of some of his rivals for the outside-half jersey, but like Neil Jenkins before him with Wales, he more than made up for that with his work ethic, professionalism and burning desire to succeed.
The end of his international career was anticlimactic, not just because his goal-kicking was uncharacteristically unreliable but because of the way some members of the England squad conducted themselves off the field and used the anonymity of post-tournament reviews to blame others for their failings on it.
Even Wilkinson, in his autobiography that was published last month, expressed his distaste for some of the antics, and in his resignation statement he showed what he thought of those who had used the review procedure to criticise the coaching team in poison pen letters by praising every member of it: we all succeed together, we all fail together.
Wilkinson's first World Cup campaign was in 1999. England fell at the quarter-final stage then, beaten by South Africa. Had the Rugby Football Union indulged then in an exhaustive review procedure, would Clive Woodward have survived as coach? Would all the players have been unanimous and unqualified in their acclaim of him and his coaches? Judging by the back page of one newspaper after the tournament, which called for Woodward to be sacked, probably not.
Wilkinson did not play the blame game. Even during the World Cup, when his goal-kicking suffered because he felt the match balls lacked consistency, he did not offer excuses, even if his autobiography was to reveal his frustration. While others whined and dined, Wilkinson got on with it.
He was not a player who redefined the role of an outside-half. If he did tackle with relish, one of the reasons for his catalogue of injuries, that path had been followed by Neil Jenkins, who also paid for it physically, finishing his career with a couple of dodgy shoulders. Wilkinson was an organiser, an effective executor of gameplans: everything he did, whether kicking for goal or touch, taking restarts, running, passing or putting up high kicks, was carefully calibrated.
He did not have the cold calculation of other outside-halves in history and he was not at his most dangerous when a game broke up. His accuracy marked him out and that was a consequence of his application. He was, and is, driven to the point of obsession and compulsion. In terms of temperament, he is the same player who made his England debut as an 18-year old in 1998. Fame did not change him and he is a player the England squad should look to in the coming years.
Williams took a different route to the top. There was a point in 2002 when his Test career looked over before it had really begun. It was the era of Jonah Lomu and there was a player almost half the All Black's height and weight trying to make an impact. He was told to go away and bulk up, losing some of his speed and picking up injuries.
Williams decided to do it his way, and if his Wales career took off by accident in the group match against New Zealand in the 2003 World Cup – he had been chosen in the squad as a third scrum-half and was given his first outing on the trip on the wing with Wales having already qualified for the last eight – his display that day came to define him, making bigger men look flat-footed as he danced away from them.
Wilkinson made his mark in terms of points and dropped a remarkable 36 goals in his international career. Williams dealt in tries, 58 of them for Wales and a couple for the Lions to take him to within nine of the all-time record. He could have gone on, like Wilkinson, trying to defy time and tide, chasing 100 caps and a landmark, but he wanted to decide when he left the stage and not be pointed towards the exit.
The decision may have been made for Wilkinson with the RFU saying that from the new year players based overseas would only be selected by England under exceptional circumstances, but what coach, never mind what happened in New Zealand, would deny himself a player who made opponents feel uncomfortable?
Wilkinson and Williams, in their different ways, had remarkable international careers and they are not lost to the game as they continue their club careers. Wilkinson has found a second home in Toulon, where he is respected and loved in equal measure. He is very much part of the present at the ambitious club where, in his final years with England, you felt that his past counted for more.
That feeling is reinforced in his autobiography where he told of his discomfort at moving out of an environment he felt comfortable in to one where he questioned whether he fitted in. Williams was the spirit of Wales from 2003, the year Wilkinson reached the top of the world, and their achievements will not quickly be forgotten.