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By Mick Cleary (The Telegraph, UK)
Jonny Wilkinson has admitted that he was battling with one of the toughest decisions of his career as he ponders the right moment to retire. The Toulon fly-half, who stepped away from the international arena a year ago, revealed that he expected the matter to be resolved within a few weeks.
Wilkinson, 32, is still a major force on the field and will be prominent again this weekend in Montpellier as he strives to secure an all-important Heineken Cup home quarter-final slot for Toulon. His adopted homeland cherishes him as much as once he was revered here.
Toulon would offer him the freedom of the Cote d’Azur were to he to commit to them for longer. Yet age will eventually wither even him and Wilkinson knows that he has to confront uncomfortable truths.
“Rugby is what I do and all that I know,” said Wilkinson. “The competitive streak in me has never been stronger. I’ve never been good at matching my natural instincts against my brain because by brain ticks over way too much. I just can’t switch my mind off.
"My natural instinct is a strong one and that is to play rugby but I know I’ve got something to deal with here.
“I’m muddled and all over the place on it at the moment. I’m having to escape it and I enjoy escaping it and the way I do that is through day-to-day rugby. I know that, ultimately, this will be an individual decision from me but, in truth, it will be based on the team as well. I can’t, and won’t, take away from them.
“Toulon can’t wait until the end of the season. They need to move on with their plans in an informed manner. So I’ve got to make up my mind by some time next month.”
The Wilkinson mind has never been one for the straight and narrow. The inner torment has been with him since he first started playing. Whatever he does decide with Toulon, his enthusiasm for a last hurrah with the British and Irish Lions in Australia this summer remains undimmed.
“If anyone were ever to give me a call I’d strap on a boot and go for it,” said Wilkinson, mindful that it is a six-week experience with no follow-on duties. “I’d leap at the chance. I’d feel as strongly about the Lions even if I were 65. It’s a remarkable experience, a life-changer.”
In the same breath he highlights the great strengths of those still playing international rugby, such as Jonny Sexton in Ireland, Greig Laidlaw in Scotland or his former Newcastle and team-mate, Toby Flood.
Wilkinson also paid tribute to the recent extraordinary deeds of Owen Farrell whose 11 successful kicks against Racing Métro last weekend took his current streak to 29 kicks without a miss. Wilkinson sees no reason why Farrell will not one day be challenging the goal-kicking landmarks of either himself or the world-record points holder, New Zealand’s Dan Carter.
“Yes, of course he can,” said Wilkinson. “He’s doing fabulously. When you see what Owen does, his mental toughness to keep coming back for more, that’s when you start talking about the real thing, He just shows that capacity and desire to want to do it, to take on responsibility. That’s a massive mark of maturity. Even when he misses, he wants to come back. That’s what a captain needs, why a selector wants you in the team. That’s what Owen has.
“It’s a long road, and a difficult road, but as he’s showing, if you look forward to and want the challenge in every moment of a match, that’s why you’ll be there at the end of that road.”
Farrell, of course, has to fight off Flood as well as the emerging Freddie Burns, of Gloucester, to make the England side. Wilkinson sees that as a positive development. He believes that the 38-21 victory over New Zealand could be the springboard to great things in much the same way that England’s win in South Africa triggered an era of dominance which ended with World Cup victory in 2003.
“I really do believe it could be,” Wilkinson said. “New Zealand hadn’t lost in Europe in 10 years so you’re talking not just about a victory but a major victory. England’s next game, [against Scotland in just over a fortnight] will tell us so much. It has to exhibit that everything that was part of the New Zealand win was really part of the win and not just a one-off. I believe it will show that.”
Wilkinson will be watching from afar as he goes about his business for Toulon. He is playing as well as he has played in a decade, kicking goals with customary dead-eyed accuracy as well, putting his side clear in the Top 14 and establishing them as one of the favourites to win their first ever European title as well.
Toulon have beaten all-comers this season in much the way that Leinster and Munster have managed over the last seven or eight seasons. Another French side, Clermont Auvergne, have also impressed with the sweeping breadth of their game.
“They’re like Barcelona with the standards they are hitting, those of international rugby,” Wilkinson said. “We’re still looking for their levels of consistency at Toulon. Clermont have been up there for a while now and you can’t call yourself a legend if you’ve just had one good season.
"We’re searching for that identity. It’s coming. We missed out in the Top 14 final against Toulouse last season. We were four metres short in the last seconds but lost. That four metres seemed like a mile.
“As England showed in 2007, when we got to the World Cup final and narrowly lost, it’s a huge difference if you do get across the line as we did in 2003. Those are the margins. Of course, we all want to really put Toulon on the rugby map. That’s why this game at Montpellier is massive, and the Heineken Cup campaign ahead. We all want that success.”
For how much longer that craving is in play remains to be seen. Wilkinson is approaching the full-time whistle. Only he can decide if he fancies extra time.
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