Peter Bills: Wilkinson's French foray is akin to a holiday

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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson may be 30, his Rugby World Cup tour de force may be six long years behind him and injuries may have extracted a grievous toll on this elegant, courteous young Englishman.

But on the evidence of the first match of the new French Top 14 season, Wilkinson, whose manners and behavioural standards continue to make him a superb role model for his sport, need not worry about the advancing years.

If French rugby this season is to mirror the type of game demonstrated beside the Mediterranean last Friday night between RC Toulon, Wilkinson's new club, and Stade Francais, then Wilkinson can still anticipate a long and financially fruitful career far into his 30s in the French game. Indeed, the likes of Rob Andrew, Ollie Campbell and Grant Fox, notable kickers of past years, might contemplate a return to the garage to dust off their playing boots. For rugby union circa 2009 is increasingly resembling American Football, where kickers are so valued.

The setting and the occasion at Toulon's Stade Mayol ground were fantastic; just a pity about the rugby. A senior official from a London Guinness Premiership club sat himself down in a comfy seat before the start, surveyed the surroundings and inquired "Can there be a better setting in all France"?

He had a point. Behind the northern end of the ground, the mountains of ‘les Alpes de Provence' climbed steeply, the stone turned a pink hue by the setting sun. Literally a stone's throw behind the southern end, lay the port where a ferry to Corsica loaded up and gently eased out into the calm Mediterranean sea.

At kick-off time, 8.45pm, the temperature was still around 28 degrees.

Wilkinson, like all his Toulon team-mates, was bronzed as befits those who live in the south of France. They closed the doors on a capacity 13,500 crowd and the atmosphere was electric. But then came the game...

Alas, burnish from your imagination images of French rugby in its hey days, the ball flashing down the threequarter line at blistering speed, deft hands working it into space as players cut angles as sublime and delicious as a slice of ‘tarte abricot'. Fact was, the ball hardly ever got down the line. Indeed, most times it never got beyond the outside half.

Stade Francais had chosen a giant South African centre at No. 10 and it quickly became evident as to why. Like Wilkinson, most times Brian Liebenberg got the ball it was hoofed up into the hot night air, a general signal for everyone to run after it.

In one sense, this was a thoroughly justified act for the catching of the high ball would have been more secure in the hands of schoolboys. But whatever the effect, the cause could never be justified.

What we saw was a complete and utter abrogation of French rugby's proud tradition. Those great running backs of the past, the likes of Jean Gachassin, the Boniface brothers, Christian Darrouy, Philippe Bernat-Salle and Alain Caussade would have raged at the sight. No enterprise, no adherence to the traditions of the French game with its vibrant creativity, its electric running on and off the ball and its technically exquisite passing. Just bang, bang, bang as the ball was belted skywards. The risk factor had been completely obliterated.

Frankly, it made you weep with frustration.

Of course, it would be absurd to pin the entire blame for so dismal a state of affairs just on two French clubs. After all, the whole rugby world has gone on a kicking frenzy. Where once most players played with their heads up, their eyes and minds searching for space and the opportunity to attack and counter attack, now most resort chiefly to kicking. Kick first think second, has become the mantra.

Thus, although the suspicion must be that at 30, Wilkinson no longer has that valuable turn of speed off a standing start which so enhanced his danger as an opponent, we cannot be sure. Running the ball except on very rare occasions seemed to have been outlawed as a tactic. And when it was thrown wide, as in one Stade Francais attack of the second half, a miss-pass thrown to the outside centre hit him about a millimetre above his toes. Little surprise that the ball –you couldn't call it a pass - was knocked on.

By the end, 13,500 people must have felt like the local cat. They'd all had a good kicking. Wilkinson banged over four penalty goals, a dropped goal and a conversion to claim 17 of his side's 22 points. South African Noel Oelschig, his rival kicker for Stade, equalled that tally with three penalty goals, two dropped goals and a conversion. Forty four points scored, just two tries...

In one sense, you could say we saw the future at Toulon last Friday night. Grounds packed, sponsors eager to sign up, hospitality boxes crammed and playing celebrities on the field. But in another way, it is possible to paint a picture of a sporting nightmare, for the shape and structures of rugby are changing before our very eyes.

Is everyone happy to sign up to this vision of the future?