JONNY WILKINSON, the man with the golden boot, quietly and without fanfare called an end to his glittering England rugby career last night.

After more than a decade as the guy who set the standard for all English sport, not just his own, Wilkinson slipped without fuss into international retirement.

“To do so fills me with great sadness,” admitted the World Cup winner and national treasure, a man who behaved impeccably from start to finish.

“But I know that I have been blessed in so many ways to have experienced what I have with the England rugby team”

On his watch, England won a Grand Slam, four Six Nations titles and, unforgettably, the 2003 World Cup final, when he dropped for glory as time ran out.

“I never ever believed that I would be able to give up on this dream which has driven me to live, breathe, love and embrace the game of rugby from the earliest days that I can remember,” he said.

“Playing the game, representing the team, giving my all and never letting go has meant everything to me.

“I do, have done and always will believe that I am very capable of performing and thriving at any level of the sport.

“The time has come, however, for me to realise that I have gone as far as I can go with this England team and that the time is right for others to enjoy the same honour and pride that I have felt.”

Nothing could tarnish his golden image, not those years blighted by injury, not even the recent World Cup campaign which shamed the team he represented.

At a time when there were few good words said about Martin Johnson’s dwarf-tossing, ferry-jumping, beer-drinking squad, the fans queued around Twickenham to meet Jonny.

He was only scheduled to stay a couple of hours to sign copies of his autobiography, yet did not leave until 2am eight hours later when the last person was satisfied.

No surprise then that high among the list of people to whom he gave thanks for a career which spanned four World Cups, two Lions tours and 91 England caps, were the supporters.

He said he wanted to show his “enormous appreciation and gratitude” to the public for giving him “way, way more time and support than it has ever been reasonable for one person to ask for”.

He added: “You will never truly understand the effect you have all had on me and my career.”

Wilkinson, who plays for French club Toulon, almost certainly jumped before he was pushed. England’s new policy of not picking overseas players kicks in next month.

At the age of 32 he did not need telling that England’s future belongs to newer talents such as Toby Flood and Owen Farrell.

He recently launched a fashion clothing brand and is at last contemplating an existence beyond the sport which has defined his life and tortured his soul in equal measure.

Stuart Lancaster, England’s new head coach, paid glowing tribute to one of the country’s “greatest ever” players.

Wilko was, said Lancaster, a “model sportsman who never stopped trying to be the best that he can and who inspired thousands to play and watch the game of rugby”.

Of all the compliments showered on Jonny Wilkinson last night, none better summed up the man.

* Born May 25, 1979 in Frimley, Surrey.

* Joined Newcastle Falcons in 1997, aged 18, as an inside centre, putting his studies at Durham Uni on hold.

* He made his England debut against Ireland as a replacement at Twickenham in April 1998.

* Part of the England Tour to Hell side in 1998 when they were thrashed by both Australia and New Zealand.

* Made his World Cup debut in 1999, but dropped by then coach Clive Woodward for the losing quarter-final against South Africa.

* Toured twice with the British and Irish Lions. In 2001 equalled the best individual total in a Test with 18 points against Australia.

* Voted 2002 International Player of the Year.

* Helped England to a Grand Slam in the 2003 Six Nations Championship, captaining the side against Italy.

* Scored the winning drop goal in the final minute of extra-time in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final win over Australia in Sydney.

* Injuries then kept him out of England side until 2007 Six Nations.

* Played for England in the 2007 World Cup final in Paris, which they lost to South Africa.

* Missed England’s 2009 Six Nations campaign while recovering from surgery on a dislocated kneecap.

* Joined French club Toulon in 2009.

* Wayward kicking at the 2011 World Cup, missing five {penalties in a row in the win against Argentina.

* Last England match was the 2011 World Cup defeat by France.

* Retired having won 91 caps, scoring six tries for England, 162 conversions and 239 penalties.

* Second behind Kiwi Dan Carter on the all-time Test scoring list with 1,246 points.

* Leading drop goal scorer in international rugby with 36.

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