Wilkinson hints at Toulon stay
August 5, 2010
Toulon's Paul Sackey, Tom May and Jonny Wilkinson take a break from training at the Stade Mayol © Getty Images
Toulon fly-half Jonny Wilkinson has credited his move to the south of France with breathing new life into his career and has also hinted that he may extend his stay at the Top 14 club.
The 31-year-old England international made a high-profile switch to French rugby just over a year ago and has seen his gamble pay off with a return to form and fitness. And as he prepares for his second season in the Top 14, Wilkinson has heaped praise on what he considers a "special" club.
"I've never felt so good in a team environment," he said. "The team spirit and the passion is something I have rarely seen. I've never experienced anything like this before, the mix of old and young , the French guys and others like me makes for something very special."
Rugby World Cup-winner Wilkinson took the plunge with Toulon after 12 years at Premiership side Newcastle - many of which were plagued by injury - and while he admits it was a wrench to leave a club he had invested so much into, he believes it was perhaps the best decision he has ever made. Such is the impact that the change of scenery has had on him, he wasted little time in extending his original contract earlier this year and may yet commit his long term future to the club.
"Life is about finding something with fulfilment and enjoyment and I have that here," said a glowing Wilkinson. "I don't think that it is necessarily human behaviour to have those things and deliberately throw them away so if I can stay fit and keep doing a good job for these guys I will keep going and can't see myself going anywhere but here to be honest."
Reflecting on his bold decision to exit the Premiership stage, Wilkinson added that it was not an easy move to make but in hindsight was perhaps a move he should have made a lot sooner.
"My hand was forced in a way," he said. "I had to look elsewhere but was never comfortable doing that because Newcastle was something that I had thrown everything into. I'd never even stopped to think about my life not being with Newcastle but events conspired to bring everything to a head. And as a result of that situation I found this fabulous club.
"It was always going to be a bit different but what I found was that maybe I should have made the move sooner than I did, nothing against Newcastle, but in terms of what is has done for me after all the injuries. It has released a lot of pressure and within our changing room there is any number of guys who also want to take that pressure from you. I feel indebted to a place that is paying me well but also supporting me."
Wilkinson, who has opted out of next week's England camp to concentrate on the start of the French domestic season, admits that his quest for perfection in the early stages of his career took its toll but the new perspective provided by his current employers has allowed him to adjust his focus for the better. Thoughts of retirement are far from his mind.
"When I was 18 I couldn't see life without rugby but now this move has made me realise you just have to enjoy it for what it is," he said. "Every day is enough and this year just becomes this year. I'm enjoying it so much but at the same time you don't want to get into thinking about 'how long can I play for?' because you might drop back into that cycle that I found so tough with the injuries. I'll play as long as it is right for me and that will be judged by performance and enjoyment."
Wilkinson attracted rave reviews for his performances in Toulon colours last season, helping them to the Top14 semi-finals and the final of the European Challenge Cup, and was named the best fly-half in France by respected rugby newspaper Midi Olympique. But the modest No.10 is reluctant to accept any individual accolades - preferring instead to underline the strength of the team ethic.
"Ultimately it boils down to what you do for your team and the only people who can judge that are the guys around you," he said. "Hopefully the guys in that circle before a game are grateful that you are there. It's not about hitting the winning drop goal or scoring the most points, it is about what you do in between, the amount of times you get off the floor, the amount of times you get back in the line and defend.
"It [the award] is great, as I didn't want to come here and be a flop or one of those guys that everyone says is over here for the money. I came here to find out what more I have got to give and give it to this cause. It's great and makes me feel that I am on the right track but there are some fantastic players out there who have done amazing jobs for their team and maybe better jobs than I have done for mine. It's just someone's opinion."
Wilkinson's impact on the club extends to coach Philipe Saint-Andre who is keen to keep hold of his prized asset. "Jonny is very happy, and he seems to love each minute," said the former international winger. "Last week [in a pre-season clash against Racing Metro] he played 40 minutes and was fantastic, in defence, attack and kicking. I'm sure if he wanted to stay here everybody would love it but it would also be fantastic for the group because he works hard for the team. He is not a selfish man, he is a champion."
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.