Two surgeries on a broken hand ruined the fly-half’s prospects of making it in the game and six months later, he switched his mouth guard for a whistle.
Now, he is a regular on the Guinness PRO14 circuit, taking charge of huge derbies and crucial internationals every week.
His path to the top has certainly been unconventional.
Wilkinson has broken new ground between the Irish and Scottish rugby boards, shadowed World Cup finalists and had 50,000 people baying for his blood.
But the Irishman would not change a thing, even if he has not played rugby since 2001.
“I played at school and through university before I went to Adelaide in Australia for a year. I injured my hand and I was out for 18 months, and that is when I took up refereeing,” said Wilkinson.
“I had two surgeries on my hand – it was very nasty. I was a fly-half and to be out was horrible.
“Within six months, I could run again and get involved, but I just could not take the contact. If I damaged my hand, I would have had to go through all the surgeries again.
“So my dad [David], who was a referee, recommended I took it up when I got back home and I have not played since. The rest is history.”
Wilkinson started to officiate when he returned to Glasgow University, where he studied geography, and helped build a refereeing relationship between the SRU and the IRFU.
He joined the West of Scotland refereeing society but was allowed to take charge of matches in Ulster when back home – learning his craft alongside a familiar name.
“I had the relationship with both unions,” he said.
“It was unique back then. It would not be now but there was myself and JP Doyle. He had a similar relationship with the RFU.
“When we finished university, JP went on to join the professional ranks in the RFU but a job came up with Ulster Rugby for me as a referee development officer.
“I fell in love with it as I went along. I had no expectations but kept moving up and up.
“Realistically, I was never going to play professional rugby after my injury and through refereeing, I saw a pathway to the game.”
That pathway certainly opened up.
In 2008, he took charge of his first Celtic league game – in Glasgow, of all places – as the Warriors hosted the Scarlets.
But he had already become a regular face on the European circuit, running the line and shadowing the likes of Alan Lewis and Alain Rolland, who took charge of the 2007 World Cup final in France.
“I remember my first game and it was just a whirlwind. It was Glasgow v Scarlets and after 21 minutes, I looked at my watch and wondered where all the time had gone,” he said.
“I was a bundle of nerves. I did that game and then two weeks later, Scarlets v Edinburgh. It was odd because I was dropped in here and there but I did not become established until the 2011 World Cup.
“The international referees spent a lot of time in New Zealand, so that was when I came in and started to take my chance.”
Every referee wants to take charge of the game’s biggest matches and, although Wilkinson is yet to grace a World Cup or Six Nations, he certainly knows what how pressurised international matches can be.
“I was thrown in the deep end. The first opportunity I got was during the 2011 Nations Cup and I did Georgia v Romania, which is a huge game over there,” he said.
“They were going at each other because they were both in the same World Cup pool, so it was a very heated game and very physical.
“I had 50,000 Georgian fans going mad at me for every decision I made against them. I was chucked in at the deep end but it was a lot of fun.
“I have done a lot of tier two games, such as Spain, Portugal etc.
“The holy grail is to get a tier one international and do a Six Nations game. That is the dream and where I want to get to.”
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