Contepomi heaps praise on Wilkinson
August 8, 2010
Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson has been hailed as the "greatest player of his generation" by team-mate Felipe Contepomi © Getty Images
A fit and firing Jonny Wilkinson has been hailed as the "greatest player of his generation" by team-mate Felipe Contepomi who insists the England fly-half can steer Toulon to Top 14 glory.
In his first season in French rugby's top flight, Wilkinson helped steer Le Toulonnais to the Top 14 semi-finals where they were edged out by eventual winners Clermont Auvergne in an epic clash but Contepomi is confident his side can clinch the Bouclier de Brennus this season with their in-form playmaker at the helm.
"I think Jonny is one of the best if not the best player of our generation," insisted Argentinean international fly-half who, like Wilkinson, made the switch to the south of France last year. "It is a great pleasure for me to play with him. Apart from being a great player he is a gentleman and I enjoyed last year although I was injured a lot but even training with him is a pleasure and you can always learn from people like him."
Such is Contepomi's respect for his team-mate he is happy to play second fiddle to Wilkinson when it comes to the Toulon No.10 shirt. "For us he is a huge asset," added Contepomi, who won the last of his 68 Test caps in the Pumas' victory over France in June. "He had a great year last season with Toulon and is one of those players everyone looks to play against and we are lucky enough to play with him.
"But it's not about Jonny or Felipe or whoever - it is about the team. He is the best kicker and so he kicks. If I have to play 12 or 10 I will always do my best for the team. That is the culture we have here and it is one I like. It's been a good pre-season for the team as a whole and we're looking forward to the new season when hopefully the work we're putting in now will pay off."
While Wilkinson returned to top form in the Top 14 last season, being named the best fly-half in France by respected rugby newspaper Midi Olympique, his form dipped on the international stage and was dropped in favour of Toby Flood. But Contepomi believes that England boss Martin Johnson may be guilty of wasting Wilkinson's talent.
"Maybe if you have a player like Jonny you should adapt to play a game to what he likes," suggested Contepomi. "Maybe he's not having much of an input on what England should do. It's the same in football. People criticise Lionel Messi for playing well for Barcelona and not playing well for Argentina. But it's not that he's a different player - it's maybe that he's badly used for Argentina.
"Obviously England have their own way of playing and Martin Johnson is a very intelligent man and he knows what he is trying to do but I think the important thing is that Jonny is happy playing here with a smile on his face and I'm not sure if he is that happy with England."
Wilkinson, who has embraced life in the south of France since his move last summer, is as focused as ever on producing his best and is relishing the chance to prove his critics wrong by reminding them of his ability to dictate a fast-paced running game.
"This year I am hoping that we can play a way that I have always enjoyed, moving the ball, with options everywhere," said Wilkinson. "The worst feeling you can have on a rugby field is be narrowed down to one or two choices and both of them being the wrong options.
"Under the new rules [breakdown interpretations] you feel like if there is half a chance you can have a go whereas last year that would not have been enough to risk it."
While dismissing a suggestion he was happier within the club environment than he was on England duty, the 31-year-old Wilkinson admitted he did enjoyed the chance pass on his experience to the Toulon's next generation of players.
"I've been through a lot and am now trying to give that back to some of the younger guys," revealed Wilkinson. "I am trying to find a way to move that on before my time is up. It's not so easy to do that at international level because it's all about selection whereas club level provides me with the chance to be involved every day and help other guys. It's a different kind of fulfilment than that which you get with international rugby where you enjoy tackling something at the very top level."
Happiness and form appear to go hand-in-hand when it comes to Wilkinson and no-one knows that better than his coach Philippe Saint-Andre who also considers his star fly-half a "champion".
"Jonny is very happy, and he seems to love each minute," said the former international winger who has been impressed by Wilkinson's pre-season form. "Last week [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.