In Depth

Jonny Wilkinson, not Beckham, is the real goldenballs

As Becks bows out, his illustrious rugby-playing counterpart is poised for another triumph

Jonny Wilkinson

LET'S be honest, David Beckham's balls were never that golden. Not on the field of play at least, where he couldn’t quite reach the heights of fellow Galacticos like Zinedine Zidane. Now he is gone it is safe to say Beckham's biggest contribution to the beautiful game was his own beauty.

But it's a different story for Jonny Wilkinson, even though he isn't too bad-looking himself. The former England fly-half has modelled for a range of brands over the years, from Hackett to Gillette to Lucozade, and there was even one occasion when he and Becks appeared together in 2003 in an advert for Adidas.

That same year Wilkinson inspired England to glory in the final of the Rugby World Cup in Australia. The then 24-year-old dropped the winning goal deep into extra-time and the acclaim that followed was extraordinary. It even promoted PR guru Max Clifford to declare: "He's the golden boy... in the next three years, he could be turning over £5m a year. He has the potential to become the first-ever rugby superstar for the masses - the sky really is the limit."

The riches never materialised and Wilkinson never did become the first ever rugby superstar (but in any case that title had already been filled by giant New Zealand wing Jonah Lomu). A series of injuries spread over five cruel years curtailed Wilkinson's progress and though he helped England to the final of the 2007 World Cup, he was written off by many as a has-been.

Beckham, meanwhile, jetted to Los Angeles on the next leg of his football-cum-marketing career, building his brand but hardly challenging himself as a sportsman. Wilkinson also left his homeland, though in his case he swapped Newcastle for Toulon in the south of France in 2009. Toulon at the time were a team without a soul. Dubbed the ‘Real Madrid' of rugby by the French press, Toulon had the star names but little in the way of esprit de corps as they looked to climb back into the big-time.

That all changed with the arrival of Wilkinson, who found the warm Mediterranean sun did wonders for his health. In his first season he steered Toulon to the final of the European Challenge Cup (rugby's answer to football's Europa League) and in 2012 Toulon reached the final of the French championship for the first time since 1992, while again finishing runners-up in the Challenge Cup.

This season Wilkinson has played some of the best rugby of his career, taking Toulon to the brink of a historic double – the domestic league title and the Heineken Cup crown.

The Heineken Cup is the equivalent of the Champions League and the final pits Toulon against another French side, Clermont, in Dublin on Saturday. It promises to be a raucous occasion. Club rugby in France produces the sort of passion more commonly associated with the English Premier League, and Dublin is braced for the arrival of thousands of Frenchmen and women.

For Wilkinson – despite playing in two World Cup finals during his 91-cap England career – it will be his first appearance in European rugby's showpiece event at the ripe old age of 34. But win or lose in Dublin, Wilkinson will be back at Toulon next season having recently signed on for one final year.

He took a pay cut in doing so, proof that professional rugby is feeling the pinch in France along with every other profession. But for Wilkinson, unlike Beckham, it's never been about the money. What drives him on is the pursuit of perfection. When his autobiography came out in French last year it was titled Mémoires d'un perfectionniste.

There has really only ever been one 'Goldenballs' in British sport over the last 15 years - Wilkinson. He won England the World Cup, and on Saturday he  might well win Toulon the European Cup.

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