Jonny Wilkinson savours French way of life as he steers Toulon to another win

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson spent this weekend doing what he does best, kicking penalties, dropping goals and revelling in the challenges to be found outside his comfort zone.

The good news for England’s rugby selectors is that the man they want to wear the national No 10 jersey in their autumn internationals, not only looks well, sporting a deep Mediterranean tan, but is also feeling mentally refreshed and ready for the challenges ahead. He’s also in excellent kicking form.

Wilkinson kicked Toulon to an important 18-13 win over Stade Toulouse in the French Top 14 match at Marseilles’ Velodrome on Sunday afternoon, scene of the English fly half’s kicking triumph against Australia in the quarter-final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

Against Toulouse, the Englishman landed three penalties and dropped three goals to score all his side’s points for the third time this season.

Wilkinson’s extraordinary value to the Mediterranean club, which is paying him a reputed €750,000 a season, is underlined by statistics that reveal he has scored 77 of the 128 points the club has managed in his six matches to date. That translates as a remarkable 60 per cent of the club’s points and every single one from the Englishman has been from a kick.

In his six games, he has landed 19 penalty goals, four drop goals and four conversions. Toulon has won five of the six matches which Wilkinson has started. The other, at Montpellier, they lost by a single point.

So business as usual beside the Mediterranean for England’s best known rugby player? Well, not exactly. Wilkinson gave a revealing interview to a French magazine this weekend in which he spoke at length about the challenge of leaving his comfort zone back at Newcastle, and embracing what he called a new culture in France’s beautiful Var region.

How is your new life, he was asked? "It’s exactly that, a new life: a superb experience," was his retort in an interview he insisted on conducting in French.

He continued enthusiastically, "People are fantastic with me, very welcoming. They are proud of their team, and possess true values in this sport. And there is also this magnificent region. I realise it every morning when I see what the weather is like... the way of life and the culture is perhaps what is best.

"It’s a wonderful challenge but also a beautiful gift. My last 5 or 6 years have been very difficult; it’s like going back to basics, starting over again where I can discover a new life. My life has certainly got better to a level which I had never known.

"Before I came here I hadn’t played for 10 months so I have obviously lacked rhythm in my play."

Wilkinson, renowned for his intense focus on the game and manic devotion to training and goal kicking practice, admitted he has been working to balance his life better.

"It’s difficult for me because I must follow my instinct; that is for me a surplus of training. I know that I can have a fantastic life here and I have time to rest and spend good moments with my family and close friends. Now I am more at ease.

"At Toulon away from rugby, the life is fantastic. I feel more in sync with the world around me."

Has he pondered his playing future after the nightmare of 16 injuries in six years?

"It would be foolish to say I haven’t had fears about not playing any more but that hasn’t lasted long. After having re-found my form, I have put these fears aside, deep inside me, as if nothing had happened. I have no fear."

A typical Wilkinson yearning to improve still further was behind his move to French rugby.

"There are a lot of things to learn, that is what motivated me. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone, put myself in difficulty so that I could rebound.

"I need to have all these experiences and challenges, to feel them and that is why being at Toulon is a gift. I want to continue to play for another five years so the next World Cup is something I have definitely thought about.

"But I am not one for looking ahead too far. Because if you do that you lose focus on the present and that would be a big mistake."

A remarkably focused young man is Wilkinson, and you sense that will be true of whatever he applies himself to in the future.

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