By Gavin Mortimer
JONNY WILKINSON brought down the curtain on 2012 in fine style, signing off with a 26-point haul as Toulon crushed Perpignan 46-13 and consolidated their position as the Top 14’s dominant side in the first half of the season. Toulon have won 12 of their 14 matches, giving them a seven point lead at the top of the table over Clermont with reigning champions Toulouse lying third a further three points adrift.
It’s been an impressive few months for Wilkinson, who’s scored 206 points in his 12 Top 14 appearances, keeping France fly-half Frederic Michalak out of the Toulon starting line-up and attracting the attention of Lions coach Warren Gatland ahead of the summer tour to Australia.
But elsewhere how have the British exiles been faring in the first half of the notoriously long Top 14 season?
Wilkinson’s former England teammate, Andrew Sheridan, has been playing as well as at any time in the last ten years. Like Wilkinson, the former Sale prop seems to be benefiting from the Cote d’Azur climate and the niggling injuries that so disrupted his career in the Aviva Premiership have disappeared. Against Perpignan on Sunday, Sheridan inflicted serious damage on the opposition scrum while also carrying well in the loose. Another who must be in contention for a spot on the Lions tour.
The Armitage brothers, Steffon and Delon, have helped themselves to seven tries so far this season, while Simon Shaw continues to a cock a snook at Old Father Time, relegating Nick Kennedy (eight years his junior) to the bench.
The one Brit to struggle at Toulon is Gethin Jenkins. Unable to dislodge Sheridan and Carl Hayman from the first-choice XV, the Wales and Lions prop has made just one start this season in the Top 14 and if the rumours are to be believed he’s heading home at the end of the season.
At Perpignan, James Hook has been the pick of the expat bunch. The fly-half has scored 172 points so far this season, a total that would have been more had he not been forced off in the first-half against Toulon on Sunday with a knock to the shoulder. Hook’s international teammate, lock Luke Charteris, had settled in well in his first season at the Catalan club, but his season is now over after he ruptured knee ligaments in the win over Montpellier last month. In the Perpignan back-row Englishman Luke Narraway and Alasdair Strokosch have both adapted well to their new environment with the Scottish flanker in particular relishing the combative nature of French rugby.
Just up the coast from Perpignan in Montpellier, former Scotland No8 Johnnie Beattie has at last managed to string a series of games together. The 27-year-old’s career has been bedevilled by injuries in recent seasons, and a back problem sidelined him for the first two months of the season. But the Scot has been an ever present for Montpellier since the start of November and coach Mario Ledesma was singing his praises in the pages of Midi Olympique after the 54-16 hammering of Stade Francais at the weekend.
Former England centre Shontayne Hape has been less conspicuous than Beattie in the Montpellier side and injury has limited his appearances in the last two months to just three starts.
Welsh flier Aled Brew has had a curious initiation to the Top 14 since arriving at Biarritz in the summer. The former Dragons’ wing has appeared in all 14 of the Basque side’s matches yet he’s still to score his first try. Despite his lack of points, Brew’s been playing well and his work rate and assists have endeared him to Biarritz’s passionate supporters.
Just up the road at Bayonne, Mike Phillips has patched things up with Bayonne after he was suspended in September for various misdemeanours. The Wales scrum-half has looked sharp of late, putting in a man-of-the-match performance in the win over Mont-de-Marsan just before Christmas and showing all the signs that he intends to regain the Lions shirt he wore so well in South Africa four years ago.
Finally, Lee Byrne could be back as early as the middle of the month despite cracking a bone in his fifth vertebra in Clermont’s win against Leinster in last month’s Heineken Cup victory. Initially it was feared that Byrne, who’s been in exceptional form for Clermont this season, could be out for several months but the latest bulletin suggested the 32-year-old full-back might be fit for the visit of Exeter on January 12.