JONNY WILKINSON has labelled Gavin Henson a ‘unique talent’ calling on the Wales star to embrace the French culture after his big money move to Toulon. Wilkinson, who was a late replacement for Toby Flood against Wales last Friday, is relishing teaming-up with Henson at Toulon, after his shock move to the south of France.
Henson had signed with Saracens until the end of the season, but shock the game with his move to Toulon in deal potentially worth well over £500,000. ‘I can’t impress upon you enough what a change to my life, living in France, has made,’ said Wilkinson.
‘I’m sure the move to France will have the same positive effect on Gavin (Henson) it has had on me.
It is an exciting time for him. We have a great team spirit in Toulon. ‘While supporting him massively they’ll ask for a huge input from him which is exactly what you want as a rugby player. You want to go somewhere and have the opportunity to make a difference. He has that at his feet now, and if he enjoys it even half as much as I have he’ll have a great time.’
Henson has initially signed until the end of the season, but could seal a further two-year contract at Toulon.
And Wilkinson, who is now a fluent French speak urged Henson to do more than just play for Toulon. He advised him to embrace life on and off the field in the south of France.
‘The onus is very much on the player as well. The opportunity to enjoy it, to learn and broaden your horizons is there but it comes down to what you want to make of it,’ said Wilkinson.
‘Some people have gone there and not enjoyed it because they haven’t understood what was needed on the field, but if you get to grips with that you’ll realise there is great support out there in a fabulous region.
‘What you need to do is pay it back with your commitment and what you give to the team.
‘I am looking forward to playing with him. We have a good end to the season in prospect. We are desperate to achieve something this year so there’ll be some big pressure games and those are the memories you want.
‘You have to make a decision when you go there how much you will embrace the culture and the language.
‘You can choose to have the whole experience and get the very out of it or you decide to go there and hang in. That is the difference – you either embrace it or you don’t.
‘When you go there to play in France it is a massive opportunity and they pay a great deal of respect to you by signing you. The support they give you is almost obscene. Embracing the culture means paying that back. And that doesn’t just mean running until you drop at the weekend. It means during the week as well. When you do that it also gets twice as enjoyable so for me it is a no-brainer.
‘I’m sure he will love it. You realise one of the greatest by-products of playing rugby as you get this amazing experience with it.
‘Over there you are a different player with the fans behind you. They make you 15 or 20% better because they are that keen to push you and make sure you achieve.
‘Guys showed me around and if I can do that for him I would love to help. It is a great set up and also an experience you need to find what is right for you. And that could mean how you chose to live and where.
‘When you go about your rugby you realise what a pleasure and a privilege it was to go there.
You need to make the most of every second.’
Henson was frustrated in his short time at Saracens as the club failed to hand him one of his favoured shirts, instead playing him at outside-centre.
But at Toulon Henson has been promised the inside-centre berth and when Wilkinson is away, fly-half.
The two were paired on the 2005 Lions tour and Wilkinson still remembers the impact he had on that trip.
‘After playing with him on the Lions tour I know Gavin is hugely talented,’ said Wilkinson, ‘he was outstanding.
‘A hugely talented player, quite unique in some ways in what he has in his game. His long-kicking game mixed with his power and aggression and his defence and creativity – he’s got all the skills. ‘For a team like Toulon this is a good thing. You can put him in any situation and he’ll find his way out of it.’
Wilkinson, who has now lost his No 10 shirt to Flood, is also committed to joining an elite band of players to figure in four World Cups.
‘My desire to play for England is still as great as it was when I won my first cap,’ he said.
‘I’ve learnt that if I want to play rugby I can only play it one way or I don’t play it at all. It means everything has to be my best. Everything has to be the best I’ve got and better than it was before, until it is no more. That for me is hugely exciting and it continues to be the most important thing in my professional life.
‘It would mean a huge amount to me to play in a fourth World Cup. When you get to play in one World Cup it is good enough and even though injuries have come I always seem to have been ok when the tournament has come round so hopefully that will be same story later this year. I’m in it for the long run and I will give it all I’ve got and nothing less.
‘It is hell sat on the sideline but at the same time it is massively important. Being on the bench brings new lessons for me. ‘