Toulon set to play hardball with Johnson over Wilkinson

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The Independent Online

It would be stretching a point to suggest that Jonny Wilkinson's participation in the forthcoming autumn internationals is at risk because of the hardy annual known as the club-versus-country row. Toulon, the increasingly powerful French Top 14 side he joined at the start of last season, have yet to confirm their willingness to meet the demands of the England manager Martin Johnson, who wants uninterrupted access to his Test squad for almost a fortnight before the meeting with New Zealand at Twickenham on 6 November. However, Wilkinson is all but certain to be released for the full build-up, as are two of his fellow exiles – the Stade Français forwards Tom Palmer and James Haskell.

But there are signs of a new militancy on the far side of the Channel that could, if it goes unaddressed, lead to problems during the Six Nations early next year that would make last season's spat between Johnson and the Stade Français owner Max Guazzini, over the availability of Haskell, seem like an expression of entente cordiale.

Johnson has no grounds under International Board regulations to prevent his players returning to Top 14 rugby during the two fallow weekends of 19-20 February and 5-6 March, and at that point, both the Parisian club and Toulon will be in the thick of the fight for Heineken Cup qualification places.

"We haven't thought that far ahead," said Tom Whitford, the Toulon team manager, yesterday. "But we certainly want Jonny to play in as many of our big games as possible and that will be a very important stage of the season for us." As for the more immediate issue of the autumn Tests, he said: "We'll be seeking clarification from the International Board and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby [the governing body of the French elite league]. We're very enthusiastic about Jonny playing for England, but we need to know exactly where we stand. We want to act in a way that suits both our interests and Jonny's."

Last season, Toulon bent over backwards to accommodate England. This season, they have been slightly less tolerant. In August, they prevented him attending an England summer training camp. Intriguingly, they then left him out of their side.

Under the regulations, Johnson has no right of access to any player for the weekend of 30 October, when the autumn internationals are just around the corner.