Top 14
Wilkinson grateful for harsh lessons
Graham Jenkins
August 11, 2009

The smile and the suntan say it all. Jonny Wilkinson is enjoying life once again and with the warmth of the Mediterranean sun breathing new energy into his battered and bruised body he is relishing the challenge of life in France's Top 14.

England's injury-prone fly-half made the switch to France's top flight in the summer as Toulon's latest high-profile signing and will spearhead their title assault - starting with Friday night's season opener against Stade Francais at Stade Mayol which you can follow live and exclusive on ESPN.

The 30-year-old has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons since steering England to the Rugby World Cup crown in 2003 with his most recent setback, a gruesome fractured knee cap at the end of last year, curtailing his 12th and final season with Premiership side Newcastle Falcons.

Nine months of all-too-familiar rehabilitation later, the leading all-time points scorer in Test rugby is fit and raring to go once more.

"I am excited," Wilkinson told ESPN on the eve of the new domestic season. "It has been a long time and a tough struggle. It has not just been a case of sitting around and waiting. I've had to push through with injuries and there's been some doubt about where that was going with all the mental issues.

"It has been quite an experience coming back to playing, and not just playing again but in a brand new scenario, with new players and everything else. It's been a bigger change as you can imagine and I think I am benefiting from that."

The deep pockets of Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal helped to prise Wilkinson from Kingston Park but the generosity of the club is not limited to its owner, with the people of the rugby-mad city also rolling out the welcome mat. A crowd of 12,000 turned up to see one of the side's recent pre-season games while it is not uncommon to find fans at the stadium a full three hours before kick off - ensuring an electric atmosphere come game time.

As a result Wilkinson and his 16 fellow off-season recruits - including the likes of Tom May, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Felipe Contepomi, Jamie Robinson and director of rugby Phillipe Saint-Andre - have had little trouble easing into a new way of life.

"It's been very easy for everyone who is new to the club and the area due to the welcoming nature of the people, the region, the energy for rugby, the support and also the players and coaches," explained Wilkinson, who sought advice from former Toulon stars George Gregan and Andrew Mehrtens before making the switch.

"Unfortunately I've been involved in a few tackles that have been unpredictable and have had to pay the price for that."

"It's the manner they go about their daily life. There is no lag in becoming part of the team, as soon as you turn up on the first morning you are welcomed as if you have been here for a long time. I feel I am learning a lot as I integrate myself into a different culture and try to adapt and become part of that and try and give more than I am taking. Trying to become a little bit more French than English."

Wilkinson could be forgiven for an air of resentment with fate dealing him such a cruel hand since that memorable night in Sydney in 2003.

And what a tale of woe. Troublesome neck injuries finally required surgery post-2003, then there were arm problems as he, "got used to a new body." A succession of contact injuries followed - torn knee ligaments, groin surgery, a punctured kidney, shoulder reconstruction and then the knee dislocation.

"They have all been injuries I couldn't really control," insists Wilkinson, "and that is the balance I need to keep. I've needed to understand whatever I do has to help me play better and play more. Unfortunately I've been involved in a few tackles that have been unpredictable and have had to pay the price for that."

But the level-headed No.10 has long since conquered those demons and is remarkably grateful for the six years of pain and heartbreak he has endured. In a way he is glad he is not the same player that kicked Sir Clive Woodward's side to glory at the Telstra Stadium.

"I've learnt so many lessons within that period. I didn't know what those lessons were going to be, maybe in a parallel universe I may have kept on playing in the six years in between and life might be very different now. As it is, I'm supposed to be here and everything I've learnt and everything that has happened to me has brought me here to the sunshine in Toulon with a great club in a great place.

"I am actually thankful for what I've been through. It's been difficult and a long, hard ten months but I appreciate the lessons I've been given."

Stay tuned for Part Two of our interview with Jonny Wilkinson on Wednesday.

Follow this season's action LIVE on ESPN and ESPN Scrum including exclusive coverage of Toulon v Stade Francais on Friday night


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