Sport Comment: Wilkinson retirement leaves tears in our eyes

John Inverdale
IF EVERYONE who claims to have been at school with Jonny Wilkinson really was, then the education authorities should be investigating historic allegations of class sizes in the 1980s and ‘90s that must have run into the thousands.

However, and bizarrely, an English tennis fan approached me at Roland Garros last week, and showed me a picture of himself and Jonny at school together.

“And it’s true what they say,” he said. “He is so amazing because he really did practice goal kicking every lunch hour, because I used to stand behind the posts and throw the ball back to him.”

I’ve watched Jonny’s final two matches in Parisian bars over the past 10 days. Be in no doubt as to how much the average rugby fan here reviles Toulon as the “money” club which is doing nothing for the sport in France, yet Wilkinson overrides all such considerations.

When he was subbed off with three minutes to go in the Heineken Cup Final nine days ago, the bar started chanting his name.

When Toulon won the French championship this weekend, some even stood to applaud as Jonny lifted the trophy.

He described himself as a “fraud” because of the adulation, but no-one is more deserving of such respect and the British posse out here covering Andy Murray and his travails were moved as to the depth of Gallic appreciation for one of this country’s greatest sporting ambassadors.

My daughter won’t thank me for mentioning this, but she texted me late on Saturday night to say she was crying at the thought of never seeing him play again.

Her lifetime interest in the game had coincided with the Wilkinson years – also true, I suspect, for many others of a similar age – and that light had gone out. All of us who love the game know what she meant.

That crouch, those clasped hands, that swinging leg, that whispering of instructions behind his palm, that humble brilliance.

Thank you Jonny for those unforgettable memories from the few of us who weren’t at school with you.