Two giants of the modern era clashed for the final time on Sunday when Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon overcame Brian O’Driscoll’s Leinster in the quarter-finals of this season’s Heineken Cup.
It was the latest stop on O’Driscoll’s farewell tour that has already included a fairytale Six Nations triumph and may yet culminate with PRO12 glory. An out-of-contract Wilkinson has yet to confirm his plans for beyond this season but reports suggest he will also hang up his boots at the end of the current campaign. Conflicting reports insist he remains hungry and may yet choose to play on but either way we must accept his retirement is not too far away
These two men have dominated northern hemisphere rugby during the professional era and their departure will leave a significant void not only in the ranks of Leinster, Ireland and Toulon due to their talent and experience but also the game in general such is the contribution they have made and continue to make today.
They are two very special players united by their unrivalled dedication to excellence. They have inspired great success and together they can boast a Rugby World Cup triumph, Six Nations Grand Slams, British & Irish Lions tours, Heineken Cups and domestic titles.
One has previously been named IRB Player of the Year – the other can consider himself extremely unlucky not to have added his name to that elite list. One has been crowned Europe’s finest while the other is surely the best player to have ever graced the Heineken Cup, an achievement that should see O’Driscoll’s name adorn the Man of the Match honour at every subsequent final.
Injuries may have blighted Wilkinson’s career in the wake of the career-defining drop goal that won the 2003 World Cup but that moment propelled both him and the sport to unprecedented levels in England. Despite his injury woes, Wilkinson’s profile rarely slipped from those heights in the ensuing years as he rebuilt his game in the glare of the media spotlight and he enjoyed a rebirth under the sun in the south of France.
For many others, O’Driscoll is quite simply northern hemisphere rugby, a claim supported by his four tours with the Lions and a world record haul of 141 Test caps. His unrivalled consistency is all the more impressive given the physical nature of his game and a fierce competitiveness that ensures he is always in the thick of the action. Like Wilkinson, he has also adapted his game as the years and his fierce competitiveness took their toll on his body.
However, arguably more telling is the impact they have had on those they they have played alongside, the teams they have served and the sport they have represented. Rugby union owes both a great debt and is a more attractive and all-round better sport thanks to their endeavour on the pitch and demeanour when off it.
The way they handle themselves when not in battle is just as impressive as their exploits on the pitch. They are perfect ambassadors for the game and it is no wonder Wilkinson will form part of the promotional push for the 21015 World Cup in England. It is also quite understandable that Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal is intent on erecting a statue of a player he considers a ‘King’.
You also sense that O’Driscoll will not be short of offers as he ponders his next career move whether that be into coaching maybe TV such is his media-friendly persona. Given he was recently name-checked by US President Barack Obama , maybe a career as a statesman beckons?
All jokes aside, what should concern us all is who is going to become the flag bearer for northern hemisphere rugby? Which of Europe’s rising stars can excel and excite on the field and represent the sport in an equally impressive manner when the full time whistle has blown?
It is also a question that the southern hemisphere will also need to ask before too long with the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Bryan Habana, icons of the sport whose fame transcends national boundaries, reaching the twilight of their respective careers.
The professional era has been blessed with a host of super-talented players who have dazzled on the field and shown just as much class when off it. If the sport is to continue to grow then it requires a new generation to follow their lead.
Who do you see leading the next generation of global rugby icons? Comments below…