January 06 2010
If you were compiling a list of the most inspirational British sporting figures of the past decade, Jonny Wilkinson’s name would have to be near the top. Who can forget the breathtaking drop goal he scored in the dying seconds of the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final in Sydney? The English and Australian teams were tied on 17 points and Wilkinson had been brutally roughed up by the Wallaby players. But the number 10 – who was already the star of the tournament – stayed on the field, kept his nerve and fired England to what had begun to feel like an increasingly elusive victory.
The modest and personable 24-year-old seemed set for a long run at the pinnacle of the international game, but a series of debilitating injuries – mainly to his shoulder and knee ligaments – severely restricted his appearances over the next six years. But then at the end of last season Wilkinson decided to leave Newcastle Falcons, the Guinness premiership side he had played for since 1997, and join Toulon Rugby Club in the South of France. And what a difference the change has made. “Jonny”, as the locals call him (echoing the moniker of another, rather different French legend, the ageing rock star Johnny Hallyday), has rediscovered not only his match-winning form and skills, but also his love of life. And at the time of writing – and where Wilkinson is concerned it’s still advisable to touch every available piece of wood – his resurgence has been blissfully injury-free.
Some might say the transformation is all due to the beneficial warmth of the Mediterranean climate and rejuvenating dips in the sea after training – never really an option on Tyneside. But others would no doubt point to the huge investment that has taken place at Toulon and the excitingly multinational nature of the team that has been assembled there. The director of rugby is the former French captain Philippe Saint-André and his assistant is the former All Blacks skipper Tana Umaga and, as well as Wilkinson, the playing staff include the French hooker Sebastien Bruno, the Argentinian Felipe Contepomi and the Australian Rugby League star Sonny Bill Williams.
The club’s chairman is the 49-year-old businessman Mourad Boudjellal, who also owns the comic book publisher Soleil Productions, producer of scores of sc-fi, action-hero and Manga comics. Appropriately enough, he now has a proper Boy’s Own Paper hero fronting his rugby team and since Wilkinson arrived Le Toulonnais, who play in the French first division, have been on a steadily upward curve. They’ve won eight of their first 14 games this season – with their English mascot scoring 95 points – and beaten the Guinness Premiership leaders Saracens 31-23 in the Amlin Challenge Cup, Wilkinson being responsible for a further 16 points.
Domestic rugby fans weary of watching their sides play on mud-spattered pitches in the cold and rain might consider a trip to the Med to watch Toulon. Les Rouges et Noirs, whose Stade Félix-Mayol is easily accessible in the city centre, are at home to Montauban on January 9 and host Montpellier on January 30. Biarritz and Castres are the visitors in March (when, hopefully, Wilkinson will be engaged in helping England win the Six Nations) with Bayonne and Perpignan coming to town on April 3 and 17 respectively. Long before then the mimosa will be in flower all along the coast and you can savour the delicious red wines from nearby Bandol, enjoy the freshest fruits de mer at the Bar de la Marine, Sanary, and explore the beautiful calanques (deep-water fjords) between Cassis and Marseilles. Rugby generally improves in the sunshine, too, and I can promise that it will all seem more enjoyable than shivering stoically on the terraces of a wintry British stadium.
Red Rose fans will be hoping that all this time spent in the South will assist a fully fit Wilkinson to kick England to victory against the French in the traditional Six Nations decider in Paris on March 20. This year’s tournament has a wide-open look but England, who were badly hampered by injuries during the autumn internationals, have home advantage against both Wales and Ireland. That and the contributions of a certain inspirational fly-half might just enable them to surprise a few people at 9-2 with the Tote.