I first met Jonny Wilkinson as a teenager in 1998 on what would become known as England’s ‘tour from hell’.
I was managing the national side at the time and, despite the monumental difficulties we encountered on the trip, it quickly became clear that if he could survive that experience he could survive anything!
His first test start was a 76-0 defeat to Australia in Brisbane, and we went on to lose heavily to New Zealand twice before narrowly losing to South Africa on the way home.
It was a serious trip with a lot of hard lessons. Despite all of this, including missing his first kick at goal, Jonny overcame all that adversity.
In the interim he has shown himself to be an exceptional professional, culminating in that great kick that won the Rugby World Cup for England in 2003. Since then he has effectively had a second career during his sojourn in Toulon.
He was a great loss to North East rugby and for those who follow the Falcons when he left in 2009, but I don’t think anybody could begrudge him the move given what he has contributed to both club and country.
His many trials and tribulations on the injury front following the heady days of World Cup success were a testing time for him, but his move has seen him reborn in France.
He looks revitalised and invigorated, and he has done wonders for Toulon.
He is very highly regarded on the French Riviera for the same reasons he is over here – and rightly so.
The fact he has chosen this moment in time to retire comes as no major surprise, considering he began his professional career as a teenager and will turn 35 on Sunday.
Anybody who survives that length in the modern game, having endured the punishment his body has taken, is really remarkable, and all good things inevitably must come to an end.
He has some great memories to look back on, and one can only stand back in admiration at what he has achieved.
Before he hangs his boots up, however, he still has two games left for Toulon – Saturday’s Heineken Cup final against Saracens and the French Top 14 final the weekend after.
Knowing him a little bit and understanding his level of determination, he has made his statement about retiring intending to go out all guns blazing.
The team he has around him at Toulon puts him in a good position, and with the sort of attitudes he has apparently inculcated into the squad down there they have every chance of doing it.
They have a great deal of firepower and all-round strength, and it is interesting when you look at how both clubs’ seasons have gone.
Saracens may now find themselves in the same position Harlequins did last weekend.
Having played some massive matches, the Quins were found wanting during last weekend’s Premiership semi-final simply because they had run out of gas, and the reality is that every player and indeed every team only has so many big games in them.
This weekend’s final is finely balanced in that regard, although Saracens have been very well managed and they play some fine rugby.
Chris Ashton seems to have come back into form despite his stupid diving when he scores. He will either put his shoulder out or lose the ball at some stage doing that, and it is just unnecessary.
When you talk about someone like Jonny Wilkinson there is just no comparison and they are two different types, but there you go. I digress. With Saturday’s final being in Cardiff one problem for the teams might be the state of the Millennium Stadium pitch, and there is no doubt in my mind that Saracens’ more open and attacking gameplan has coincided with the installation of a 4G playing field at their Allianz Park home.
That gives them a consistent surface all-year round on which they can step and play their game. It is a confidence-inducing surface to play on, and I just hope Cardiff’s pitch lives up to the occasion. The debate about whether or not Toulon’s Steffon Armitage should be the England No 7 goes on, and he can do his own cause a huge amount of good, if he decides he actually wants to play for his country.
Under the current selection policy that means moving back from France, a big decision on his part I suspect. But what is certain is that he is an excellent player, and if England are really going to do well in the 2015 World Cup they need an openside who is going to be on the ball against the likes of Richie McCaws et al.
His brother Delon at full-back gives them an edge, as do Matt Giteau and Mathie Bastareaud in the midfield.
With Wilkinson, of course, that makes them an awesome combination behind a big pack of forwards, and they can mix it with anybody.
It is a question of how they turn up on the day, because Saracens have all the firepower you could wish for.
Having managed to accurately predict the results of the European and domestic semi-finals, I have to admit I haven’t got a clue who will lift the Heineken Cup.
It is one of those games where you could make a strong case for either side and as an Englishman I would love Saracens to do it, but if Jonny’s Toulon were to win the day I don’t think anybody could complain.