Lancaster: Wilkinson changed rugby

Hampshire Chronicle: Jonny Wilkinson will call time on his playing career at the end of the season Jonny Wilkinson will call time on his playing career at the end of the season

Jonny Wilkinson will enter retirement bearing the ultimate tribute from England head coach Stuart Lancaster, who believes the World Cup winner's influence has changed the face of the game.

Wilkinson's remarkable 17-year professional career is just two matches away from its conclusion after he announced he will hang up his boots at the end of the season.

The 34-year-old, arguably the sport's biggest star, will bow out with Toulon's Heineken Cup final against Saracens on Saturday and the Top 14 final against Castres the following weekend.

Lancaster believes Wilkinson's impact on the sport has been vast, highlighting the extraordinary level of dedication shown by the former England fly-half and captain.

"I've never had the privilege to coach Jonny but he will get a huge number of plaudits and rightly so," Lancaster said.

"He has changed the way the game has been played, but more importantly changed the way in which people prepare to play the game.

"Jonny has the full repertoire as a fly-half. He's got an unbelievable kicking game, his defence is outstanding, he has great distribution off either hand. To do that so consistently for so long sets him apart.

"The point I'd emphasise more is the way he prepared to play the game.

"The detail and preparation he did off the field made him the complete player.

"His influence on so many rugby players across the world in that respect is phenomenal.

"I can't actually think of a player in rugby who would have had the same impact on the sport as him.

"I know from coaching players who have been in the same team as him...the amount of times they've said to me 'I thought I was professional, I thought I prepare well, I thought I worked hard, but he raised the bar to a different level'."

Wilkinson's imminent retirement had been widely anticipated and the news was confirmed on Toulon's website on Monday morning.

"I would like to take this opportunity to formally announce my retirement from playing rugby," said Wilkinson, who is 35 on Sunday.

"It goes without saying that I have an enormous number of people to thank for their support from all around the world, but especially here in France and in England.

"This, however, is not at all the time to be concentrating on this as I would like to focus all my attention and energy on the team and these final two games of the season.

"I sincerely thank you all for everything you have given me and for making these last 17 years something I will never forget."

Wilkinson bows out as one of only five players to have scored 1000 international points, with his haul of 1,246 second only to New Zealand great Dan Carter.

He made his debut for Newcastle in 1997 and remained at Kingston Park until 2009, winning the Tetley's Bitter Cup twice.

It was during his days with the Falcons that he came to the attention of then-England coach Sir Clive Woodward.

Wilkinson made his debut as an 18-year-old and, after a chastening experience on the 'Tour of Hell' to Australia, he won the 2000, 2001 and 2003 Six Nations.

Those successes were the prelude to his signature moment at the 2003 World Cup when he kicked the final-winning drop-goal against hosts Australia.

A sickening succession of injuries - partly caused by his fearless approach to defence - blighted his career after the 2003 World Cup.

Although no longer such a dominant force in international rugby, he played a key role in helping England reach the final again four years later.

He retired from international rugby with 91 caps in December 2011, by which point he was already making a new career for himself in France.

Well-known as a perfectionist, Wilkinson took his distinctive kicking style to Toulon in 2009 and immediately became the fulcrum of their side.

He won the Heineken Cup last season after kicking all of his team's 24 points to beat Saracens in the semi-final.

His form resulted in an invitation to join the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia last summer, but he rejected the opportunity in order to recover from injury.

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