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

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?

A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home