Jonny Wilkinson: 'Life in France is intertwined with rugby. I feel 18 again'
The England fly-half is on the brink of winning his first silverware in six years. He tells Matt Gatward how a year in Provence put a spring back into his step – and why that's good news for England
Friday 14 May 2010
It's been six years and a fair few injuries and recuperations since Jonny Wilkinson last enjoyed the feel of silverware in his hands at club or international level – and the 2004 Powergen Cup winners' medal is probably not at the front of his mantelpiece. So it's with great relief and excitement that he enters the final weeks of his club season, the memory of England's suffocating Six Nations campaign behind him.
Wilkinson endured an almost perennial relegation scrap in his 12 seasons at Newcastle Falcons and although he says it strengthened him as a player, England's premier kicker is all the more chipper for finding himself going for gongs at the sharp end of the season with his French club, Toulon. Being on the front foot, rather than the back, seems to suit him, and it's added to the freedom he has found in his rugby since his move south.
Next Sunday, his expensively assembled Toulon meet the might of Cardiff Blues in the Amlin Challenge Cup final in Marseilles, but Clermont Auvergne are the first rather dangerous, chunky and stubborn obstacle barring Wilkinson's attempts to lay his hands on a trophy. Toulon take them on in tomorrow's Top 14 semi-final, and while a few English heads will be turned towards St Etienne, it's the anonymity and liberation of playing across the Channel that's floating Jonny's boat.
"The best thing about it for me," says Wilkinson, "is that I don't know the people I'm playing against. It's a nice break to play rugby, for the simplicity of playing rugby. There's a less complex edge than there was in England. When I started out as an 18-year-old, I had that same feeling. But after a while you know everyone and I was in international squads meeting up with the guys I was playing against. Then it's all about the match-ups, me versus him. Whatever one guy does for his team it's going to be different to what I needed to do. They are incomparable. In France, that simplicity is back because I'm not vying against some other No 10 for the France jersey. It's just about you and your team. That's a nice way for it to be."
So, with the spotlight flicked off, does Wilkinson see himself guiding Toulon past Clermont and then the winners of tonight's other semi, Perpignan or Toulouse, in the Top 14 final? "There are lots of good teams in France and no guarantees," he says. "If you turn up and give it everything you can be in the match at the end. But the games are so tight, and that's if you're at your best. Our home games in Marseilles against Toulouse and Perpignan this season were so close they went to the final whistle. You can never relax. I don't know how you win these tight games. Maybe it's preparation, sticking together, positive thoughts."
Wilkinson is speaking at London's Rossyln Park Rugby Club the day after his side have beaten Connacht to reach the Challenge Cup final. He's tired and as battered as the sofa on which we're sitting in the clubhouse – he took a blow to the neck and missed the last half-hour, having already kicked 14 out of his side's total of 19 points – and has completed a promotional training session. He seems content, yet as intense as ever. "I didn't get much sleep last night – I struggle after games like that, late at night, to wind down. I'm knackered, but it's so much easier when you've won."
Another win in the Top 14 semi tomorrow and Wilkinson will be in the final in a fortnight, but sandwiched in between is the denouement of the Amlin Cup, a week on Sunday – a possible three-week run of fixtures which make a Lions tour look like a holiday camp. And, after three defeats at the penultimate stage with Newcastle in Europe, Wilkinson is delighted to be at the business end for once.
"It's great to be there," he says. "Marseilles is a hell of a place for these matches. In the recent game against Perpignan, the atmosphere was amazing. The guys know how to throw a rugby party. They support well. And as for Cardiff – you're struggling to find a non-international in their side."
"There's something about the whole club thing," he adds. "The international thing is amazing but the club thing is different. You're with guys you spend all day, every day with, and you build towards it over the year or years. There are guys who have been up and down with Toulon like I had at Newcastle. I've only been there one year but automatically you know what it means. But you know if you lose this one you're back at square one next year without anything to show for it."
Except a tan, of course. Wilkinson looks healthy and relaxed and is clearly loving his time on the Côte d'Azur. "In France, the passion and energy the guys have for rugby is unique. Life is intertwined with rugby. It's exciting. I've not had that before. And there's the climate and the friendly atmosphere. It creates this brand new environment that's special. It's funny when you have people coming to stay because they drop into holiday mode and you can feel yourself wanting to join them."
"I love to be part of building something," he adds. Toulon are the Jonny-come-latelys of the French league since comic-publisher Mourad Boudjellal started bankrolling them. They play their home games at the 14,000-seat Stade Mayol but have started taking high-profile matches to the 60,000-seat Stade Vélodrome in Marseilles. Coached by Philippe Saint-André, the coastal club have a sea of stars awash with wages: the Argentinians Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Felipe Contepomi, South Africa's Joe van Niekerk, Kiwi Sonny Bill Williams and, as from next season, Wilkinson's England team-mate Paul Sackey.
"Paul will enjoy it a lot," Wilkinson says. "The lifestyle will reflect well on how he plays his rugby. That distance that I've enjoyed may help as well – just to play rugby for rugby's sake. You're just training not thinking, 'what if I don't do this or what if I don't do that?' That's been refreshing. You can see it in the other players over there."
Maybe Danny Cipriani, an occasional England colleague, although less and less under Martin Johnson, will feel a similar sense of release with his move Down Under? "The quality of that decision will be determined by how good a decision he makes it," theorises Wilkinson, who was this week named in England's squad for the summer tour of Australia. "I've no doubt he's going to flourish out there and that he'll enjoy the simplicity of just playing rugby." And being out of the English scrutiny? "Yeah, but deciding to go to a new club doesn't change your career. Once you get there, you've got to make it work."
The feeling is that this is partly the secret of Wilkinson's success this season. He's enjoying French life: "walking on the beach, bike rides, chilling in the garden, going for a bite to eat," and has learnt the language he struggled with at school – "I was a real panicker" – by reading French literature and making notes. "I've been there eight months now and I'm starting to think in French. That's when you know you're getting there. I always wanted to be one of those blokes who can pick a phone up and immediately start speaking in a different language. It's pretty cool."
Aside from French lessons, the 30-year-old is still learning on the pitch, trying to rid himself of that infamous intensity. "We do a ridiculous amount of training," he says, "which I'm enjoying and I'm getting a handle on how to make it effective, as opposed to just spending time out there. If I can switch off, I'm a more effective player. I continue to work on that and my biggest challenge will always be learning to let things go when I can't affect them."
His critics say he couldn't affect much during England's lacklustre Six Nations campaign for which he was dropped for the final game, against France. Wilkinson is happy to discuss the campaign but for the first time slips into political speak. "I see it as being enormously productive," he says, clearly with no intention of doing a Gordon Brown, and walking away from No 10. "Not necessarily in an out-and-out sense but positive in a sense of where I've gone from there. You can't cheat the result, you get what you are supposed to get. It is what it is," he adds, a pointless phrase used recently by Tiger Woods after a shocking round. Maybe it's in the beginner's book to Buddhism.
"I resign myself to the fact that that's where I am," Wilkinson continues without enlightening me whatsoever about where he is, "and OK, let's move on. Otherwise you could get pretty down about it. There's so much going on [with England], to bring it back to that simplicity [of just playing] against all the noise, funny agendas and hustle and bustle going on would take someone mentally stronger than me."
So were the critics missing the mark during the Six Nations? "I didn't read any of the papers but I'd have a briefing before meeting the press and I'd be like 'oh, OK'." He gives a resigned shrug. "It's out of your control. The only thing under your control is your intention and preparation. On the field there are things I wish I had done differently. But if you put me back there with the same feelings I had at the time I'd do the same thing.
"Whenever you feel like you need to stand up and be counted, with that comes accountability. If you keep stepping up, sometimes you're going to succeed and other times you're not and when you don't, the blame's going to fall where it falls. I understand a dead ball when I'm kicking but not people's minds. Sometimes I get lost trying to understand it."
We know how you feel. But were the critics missing the mark? "My intention was to be creative. It's not a crime, you feel like you've done something wrong. But what you're doing is trying to learn and find what's best for the guys in the team you've not played with before and trying to fit with a new England system. [I had] a whole year out [with injury] and came back, playing in France and learning a new way. Saint-André has done a great job and helped me understand how to play French rugby. So I'm learning that, and then suddenly I'm back in the England mix."
The temptation is to think Saint-André, a dashing wing in his day, can extract the ingenuity in Wilkinson that Johnson can't, although the Frenchman's coaching style is not all Gallic flair. Cue a Wilkinson sidestep that would have been very welcome against the Italians. "The way you play in the French league is not necessarily the way you want to play in England. Maybe with Toulon, we've not played well but scraped a good result, whereas with England we've maybe not quite got things right and we've paid the price for it. In France a win is a win, but in England it doesn't work like that. But I see it as a reflection on me so it's up to me to take accountability and improve."
Next stop for England is Perth, and the first of two Tests. "It's another chance for me to see where I am along that route," Wilkinson says. "It's a great learning opportunity to go off and build with your team and move forward." As for looking further forward, imparting his knowledge of the game to others would seem to be on the agenda. "I'll need a big break but I love the individual coaching. I know what it's like to be a dead-ball kicker out there and have all that pressure. Dave Walder [his kicking coach at Newcastle] has given me that system to fall back on that allows you to feel that you've got a chance to succeed at any point. I speak to some [amateur players] and say 'try this' and you see their eyes light up and for me that's the best feeling in the world."
But first for some silverware.
Wilkinson is launching the Volvic 14 Day Challenge, drinking 1.5 litres of water a day for 14 days to help feel more hydrated, active and alert. See www.volvic.co.uk
Points scored by Wilkinson in the Top 14 this season, making him the joint second top scorer. Toulon finished second and face Clermont in the play-off semi-final tomorrow.
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