Jonny the genius passes first French test with ease
Sunday 16 August 2009
You couldn't quite call him the coolest guy in the ground. Not beside the Mediterranean, with temperatures still in the high 20s at 11pm.
Yet with 17 points from that trusty left boot, a couple of audacious long touch kicks and his inherent ability to put his team where they would like to be, Jonny Wilkinson reminded his new audience at Toulon that, even at 30 and after almost a year out, plenty of his genius remains.
Wilkinson guided a nervous Toulon to a 22-22 draw with Stade Français on the opening night of the French season. It was an individual performance that offered hope not just for the ambitious French club but, perhaps, England too.
The control Wilkinson has always exuded in his own life remains manifest upon the rugby field; unflustered, calm and decisive, the fly-half negotiated his latest comeback with the aplomb to be expected of a World Cup winner.
Four penalty goals, a drop goal and a conversion was his haul on a hot night at Stade Mayol and his new fans loved it. He lined up goal-kicks in almost reverential silence and even those attempts that missed (two penalties and a drop) were applauded. Looking tanned and fit, as befits a resident of the south of France in August, Wilkinson signaled that his contribution to Toulon's cause is unlikely to be insignificant.
Stade's Australian coach, Ewen McKenzie, admitted as much, saying: "At least he showed he was human by dropping the ball at the end. But he will be a key man and will do a great job for them. I am glad we played them now because I am sure he'll improve in terms of generating attacks."
Afterwards, Wilkinson was almost buried by a cluster of microphones. He said: "This is a big experience, something I need to work to get used to. There are a lot of different bits to take on board. That is going to be the strength of how I contribute to this team – how quickly I pick that up.
"I didn't feel before the game I was kicking that well. You could see with a couple of wider ones I wasn't really troubling the target but thankfully the drop goal went over. It was just a shame we had the lead most of the game and to have held on would have been a big thing. But we have a lot of lessons we must learn from the draw."
Switching to French, Wilkinson went on: "It was a great experience, the atmosphere was fantastic. I know it is necessary I learn a lot and do it quickly. It's very physical but that's the same as in England. That's not a problem for me. I'm in good health and ready to play."
Two other potential inclusions in Martin Johnson's England plans this winter also made their French debuts in the game. The former Wasps Tom Palmer and James Haskell did enough to impress their coach, McKenzie.
"I have been very happy with their progress, they have fitted in really well," he said. "Palmer will be a great threat at set-pieces and he looks to have good discipline."
Palmer, the lock who was the more impressive of the two, said the match had been played in "an amazing atmosphere" and added: "I thought I did all right, the line-outs went pretty well. But it was a difficult game to get into, with so much kicking. And it was so hot – I reckon I lost half a stone out there through sweat."
Haskell, the young flanker whose move raised serious concerns within English rugby, was shown a yellow card. He stood out chiefly for wearing a ridiculous white headguard and white boots and he show-ponied accordingly for most of the first half. He improved a little afterwards, but he clearly has much still to do.
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