Toulon confirm Wilkinson interest
Huw Baines and Arnaud Grandidier
April 7, 2009
Jonny Wilkinson's Newcastle future is still in doubt © Getty Images
Toulon's enigmatic owner, Mourad Boudjellal, has confirmed his interest in luring Jonny Wilkinson away from Newcastle Falcons provided his side remain in the French Top 14 next season. Speaking exclusively to Scrum.com, Boudjellal revealed he had flown Wilkinson to the south of France last month and offered him a glimpse of life on the French Riviera.
"He came to Toulon, yes," Boudjellal said. "He came to get a bit of sun and it was sunny so he was happy. He enjoyed the sun on the French Riviera."
Boudjellal has forged a reputation as perhaps the most ambitious of all French rugby club owners in recent seasons. The comic book magnate has parted with millions to secure the services of Victor Matfield, George Gregan, Anton Oliver, Jerry Collins, Sonny Bill Williams and Tana Umaga over the past two years, and has now set his sights on recruiting Wilkinson for the 2009-10 season.
But, as strong as his desire is to sign Wilkinson, Boudjellal conceded his pursuit of the England fly-half was inextricably linked to Toulon remaining in the Top 14 next year. Despite its big spending over the summer, Toulon has underwhelmed since earning promotion from Pro D2 last season, prompting several public outbursts from Boudjellal and constant murmurings regarding Umaga's coaching future.
Toulon's survival hopes were given a shot in the arm with a win over Montauban last weekend, but the club remains just eight points above the relegation zone and possesses the unenviable task of facing reigning champions Toulouse this round. Wilkinson received a telling insight into the club's on-field struggles last month when he attended the Toulon-Perpignan match at the Stade Felix Mayol - a game won by Perpignan 32-29.
"Wilkinson is a player that a lot of clubs could dream of - but we need to stay up , we need to be able to afford it and we need to be the team that he chooses," Boudjellal said. "There are other players, of course, but it is vital for us to stay up in the Top 14.
"We haven't been in touch for the last two weeks, maybe three. Today we are very much focused on the championship. Our main problem at the minute is to stay in the Top 14. Once this is done, we will see what happens."
Wilkinson, 29, is currently recovering from a dislocated knee-cap sustained against Gloucester in October and has been linked with both Toulon and high-flying French Pro Division 2 side Racing-Metro Paris in recent months.
Toulon's clash with Toulouse this weekend has been shifted from the Stade Felix Mayol to the larger-capacity Stade Velodrome in Marseille due to demand. The Daily Telegraph have reported that Boudjellal is attempting to finalise a deal with Wilkinson prior to the match, allowing him to unveil his prize recruit on a grand stage.
The club has already been active in the transfer market following the news that former Sale director of rugby Philippe Saint-Andre would join the club to work alongside current coach Tana Umaga from next season. Leinster's Argentina international fly-half Felipe Contepomi, Welsh international centre Jamie Robinson and French internationals Sebastien Bruno and Pierre Mignoni have all signed in recent weeks, but Wilkinson would surely be a prize acquisition.
"I am trying to sign one or two good, high-profile players and Jonny Wilkinson is one of those," Saint-André told the Daily Express. "In the next two or three weeks we will know if he is coming."
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.