The Rugby Riviera
Jonny Wilkinson spoke to Special Report about life at Toulon and his hopes of making the Lions squad.
Last Updated: 09/10/12 10:39am
Jonny Wilkinson told Special Report that he is loving life at French outfit Toulon - and that he has not given up hope of being picked for the British Lions.
The fly-half, who moved to the Côte d'Azur from Newcastle in 2009, helped Toulon to runners-up spots in the both the Top 14 and the Amlin Challenge Cup in 2012 and says his "obsessional" nature fits in well in France.
Wilkinson, who kicked a decisive drop goal to fire England to the 2003 World Cup title, still harbours international ambitions, too, and revealed he would relish being part of the Lions squad to tour Australia next summer.
"A few guys I spoke to when I'd just come out here said: 'You needed to escape the English side of things for many reasons'," said the 33-year-old.
"It was getting into a bit of a negative spiral that I couldn't break out of, with the injuries and the press and everything. But coming here people asked: 'How on earth is that going to be any better when you're in a town that lives for rugby?'
"But the thing here is that the people live for rugby and not for high-profile individuals, who they see every day. When they come and speak to me they talk about the team.
"I bring an obsessional side that I think links in with the obsession there is for rugby here. I live, breathe, eat, and sleep it up until the moment when it's over, and that in a way is my way of communicating with these guys without needing to speak.
"I am keen for anything and everything. When you come over here to play you take a route and that route goes in whatever direction, but I am loving this path. But at the same time I am a proud Englishman and proud member of the Home Nations."
Wilkinson is not the only Englishman lighting up Toulon; the Surrey-born star has been joined on the Mediterranean coast by Nick Kennedy, Andrew Sheridan, Delon and Steffon Armitage and veteran lock Simon Shaw.
Ex-Wasps man Shaw says he was inspired to cross the channel after watching Wilkinson flourish in France, while he also explained why he thinks he is still thriving in professional rugby at the ripe old age of 39.
"When I saw Johnny come out here a few years ago and saw his revival in terms of his spirit and the way he was enjoying it, it probably helped me make the decision," said Shaw, who has amassed 76 England caps. "I can see where he is coming from having been here for a year now.
"Luck plays a big part and so does genetics (in playing for so long), but I think a lot of young guys have the pressure of having to achieve things very early in their career.
"They do everything they can weights-wise and conditioning wise and maybe there is a bit of burnout which I didn't have as I was doing it for the fun of it."
On a possible Lions call-up, 16 years after he first made the squad, Shaw added: "I still have the motivation and if I am playing well enough and am fit enough then why not? You would never turn it down."
Toulon's president, Mourad Boudjellal, has financed the arrival of the English sextet and says he admires the group's passion and professionalism.
The French comic-book entrepreneur's ultimate goal is to see his charges lift the most prestigious trophy in European rugby, the Heineken Cup, which kicks off its new season this weekend.
"The English are warriors and do not like defeat. They are very professional and adapt more easily to the Top 14 because they understand promotion and relegation," said Boudjellal.
"A lot of people think Toulon is a club with a millionaire and no soul and that I spend endless sums of money to get the best players in the world, like a team on PlayStation, but it is now self-financed.
"We are going to win it (the Heineken Cup) and we want to win it this year but I don't know if we will get there. No-one has a right to limit our ambition and the supporters give so much to us so we want them on board and for their dreams to come true."