Week 37 (31 May - 6 June 2014)
When Jonny Wilkinson retired from professional rugby on Saturday, having just guided Toulon to victory in the Top 14 final, he was able to look back over a career defined by some very special moments.
But it was as he stood on the pitch at the Stade de France after the final whistle had been blown – without a ball in his hands or at his feet – that, in a way, he experienced the most remarkable moment of them all. Blaring out of France's national stadium was God Save the Queen. Toulon's side is as cosmopolitan as they come, but still the sound of tribal French rugby fans singing les Rosbifs' national anthem was startling. Such is the universal affection for Wilkinson's performances – not just on the pitch, but off it as well.
Exceptional moments like these were what Wilkinson was referring to when he later tweeted that he was the "luckiest man alive" and thanked fans for giving him "way more than I will ever be able pay back."
He spoke with similar modesty a week before when, having won the Heineken Cup, he claimed he had been "over supported" and "given way too much respect." His humility and persistent refusal to accept praise when it was "others who deserved so much more" was part of what made him such a great team player and won him so many admirers in and out of sport.
With the line between sport and show business, talent and celebrity ever more blurred, Wilkinson's relentless professionalism and willingness to place the needs of the team before his own always resonated with teammates and fans. He consistently refused to accept the praise which came with his outstanding talent and described himself as a "fraud" rather than a sporting hero. Shying away from the limelight and dedicating himself to his sport rather than communicating publicly spoke more about his character than words ever could.
In his typically self-sacrificing manner, he said after Saturday's game, "It's important not to stand in the way of guys who are the future. I feel like I have got lots of positive stuff to give, but I think that maybe needs to come from outside now and not from on the field.
"All I can do is thank everyone in the group, the coaches - it's incredible to explain; it's just a pleasure."
Maybe not even Wilkinson himself understood what a pleasure it had been: to play with him, to watch him, to listen to him. His teammate Mathieu Bastareaud summed it up best when he said after the game, "This is what I'll be able to tell my grandchildren: that I've played with a great man."
Photo: Wikimedia Commons