|Fly half Wilkinson joined the Falcons straight from school at the age of 18 in the summer of 1997.
Then-Falcons coach Steve Bates had taught at Wilkinson’s Lord Wandsworth School in Hampshire, and having deferred his studies at Durham University for a year to try full-time rugby, he was such a hit in that first season that his studies were to go on hold.
In a star-studded team which ultimately went on to lift the 1997/8 Premiership title, by the end of that season he was a firm fixture in the side, competing for a place in the centres with international veterans such as Inga Tuigamala and British Lion Alan Tait.
Such was his amazing rapid rise to prominence that by March of 1998 he was in the full England Test squad, being an unused replacement against Scotland before making his debut from the bench against Ireland at Twickenham on April 4 of that year.
England’s disastrous ‘Tour to Hell’ in 1998 saw them demolished in both Australia and New Zealand, but Wilkinson emerged strong from the experience, returning to domestic duties and taking over from director of rugby, Rob Andrew, as both fly half and goal kicker for the Falcons.
Now a firm fixture in the England team, he played for the Falcons in their 1999 Tetley’s Bitter Cup final defeat to London Wasps, before making his World Cup debut in 1999. Controversially dropped by Clive Woodward for the quarter final against South Africa, England were to fall in the last eight in his absence.
Notorious for his extraordinary dedication to the game and his punishing practice schedule, his deadly goal kicking is one of world rugby’s most famous hallmarks, while his uncompromising big hitting tackling style has seen off many attackers.
While England honours continued to come, in 2001 Wilkinson helped the Falcons to the 2001 Tetley’s Bitter Cup at Twickenham, where a late try saw off Harlequins, while he headed to Australia for the British and Irish Lions tour that same year.
Points records continued to tumble, with the fly half breaking England’s all-time record, which had been held by his club coach, Andrew.
That elusive Grand Slam with England finally came in 2003, when he helped mastermind one of the greatest years in English rugby history.
Having seen off Six Nations opposition, Wilkinson and his England squad headed for the southern hemisphere, where gritty wins over the All Blacks and the Wallabies cemented their place as favourites for the Rugby World Cup, to be held in Australia later that year.
And the English did not disappoint, with an injury time drop goal securing victory in the final against Australia after beating France in the semi finals and Wales in the quarters.
Neck and shoulder injury ruled Wilkinson out of all but 48 minutes of the 2003/4 club season, although keen to help the Falcons in any way possible, he served as water boy for much of the campaign, including the Powergen Cup final win over Sale at Twickenham.
In 2004/5 he was named joint captain along with Ian Peel, and made his comeback from injury in a pre-season game at Connacht, before starting the campaign well.
Injury, however, struck again, as a haematoma to his right arm sidelined the fly half. He came back for the winter period, including a sensational winning try at home to Sale Sharks, although a knee ligament injury picked up in Perpignan and repeated in his comeback game at Harlequins kept him frustratingly sidelined again.
He did return for the tail end of the season, sufficnently proving his fitness to earn himself a place on the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, while the 2005/6 campaign saw another injury-interrupted season.