'Wilkinson is as driven as he ever was'
February 4, 2013
Steve Black has been a fixture in Jonny Wilkinson's life since the former England fly-half was a teenager © Getty Images
Jonny Wilkinson is as driven as he ever was according to his long-term mentor Steve Black but the former England international remains undecided about whether to extend his playing career beyond this season.
Wilkinson is out of contract with French giants Toulon at the end of the current season with widespread speculation suggesting he is set to announce his plans to retire in the near future. The 33-year-old has revealed his agony over the decision and insisted he will do what is right for him and the team with Black, who has worked closely with Wilkinson since he was a teenager, hinting the player may opt to play.
"He loves the game, he loves rugby. He loves sport in its entirety. He loves playing the game, he is still as ambitious as he ever was," Black told ESPN. "But I do know he hasn't made a final decision yet as to whether he will play on or not play on."
Black has been ever-present throughout Wilkinson's rollercoaster ride of a career that has included World Cup glory in 2003 and years of injury agony and remains a sounding board to this day following his switch to the south of France where he rediscovered his best form and full fitness.
"We still have all the same conversations that we have had through the years in the build up to games, in season, out of season, and the guy that I speak to and the guy that stands in front of me remains driven," said Black whose own career as a conditioning expert has included spells with Newcastle Falcons, Wales and the British & Irish Lions as well as Newcastle, Sunderland and Fulham football clubs.
"His standards are as high as they ever were. He's actually totally unique in that way as far as I am concerned, because in all my years of professional sport I've never met anyone whose standards have stayed so high, whose quality control was such that his life never drifted either."
Reflecting on Wilkinson's career as a whole, he added: "He is a great team man, he will do exactly what he needs to do for the team to win, he never tries to step out of that and be a maverick. He is the ultimate team man."
Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal insisted last month that he is not yet ready 'to make a statue' of his much-adored playmaker while Black is adamant that Wilkinson has done more than enough to earn a new deal. "At 33 years of age he is having another superb season, effective and efficient season," said Black. "He's now scored over a 1,000 points in the Top 14, the Premiership and international rugby - that's not a bad record."
That rich vein of form has many tipping Wilkinson for selection for the Lions' tour to Australia later this year despite the fact he retired from international rugby following the 2011 World Cup. Black has no doubts that Wilkinson would do the shirt proud once again having previously toured Australia (2001) and New Zealand (2005) but he would be desperate to play a key role.
"I think if Jonny got picked I think he would be there on merit, he's certainly in good physical shape and I believe he would make a major impact on the tour just by being there...but I don't think he would go if he didn't think he could contribute. He would not go for the ride," said Black, who agreed it would be an appropriate stage for Wilkinson's last act as a player before reiterating his belief that the lure of another season may be too much to resist.
"It would certainly be a fitting send off for his playing career but as I have said, he's fit, his muscles are in good shape, his body has been shaken a bit over the year but you're only alive once."
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.