By Gavin Mortimer, Rugby World writer
THE OLYMPICS are over and the football season is about to get underway. But don’t worry, it’s not all depressing news on the sports front. The 2012-13 rugby season is just round the corner in the British Isles while over in France the new Top 14 campaign kicks off this weekend.
You have to feel for some of the players across the Channel, particularly the French internationals who spent June touring Argentina on the back of a season that had begun a year earlier with the build-up to RWC 2011. Barely had they the time to unroll the towel on the beach than they were called back to their clubs for pre-season training. And it’s not as if the Top 14 season is short, what with the final scheduled for Saturday 1 June next year. Incidentally, that’s the same day the Lions play their opening match of their tour so let’s hope the likes of Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins and James Hook have talked it over with their respective clubs.
Jenkins is one of seven British players now at Toulon, a band of Brits that includes the Armitage brothers, Steffon, Delon and Guy, and Andrew Sheridan.
The leader of the band is Jonny Wilkinson, now in his fourth season with the Mediterranean club and enjoying life more than ever in France. Speaking exclusively to Rugby World, the former England fly-half said last season’s defeats in the final of the Top 14 (to Toulouse) and the Amlin Challenge Cup (to Biarritz) haven’t dented the morale of Toulon.
“The guys are desperate to get stuck in and make it count,” said Wilkinson, who is an ambassador for the Jaguar Sports Academy. “Reaching the final of the Top 14 gave us a taste of what it’s like to play at the Stade de France in front of 80,000 people. That’s where we want to be again this season and we all realise how hard we must work to get there.”
There has been a lot of activity in the Top 14 transfer market over the summer, with the likes of Pedrie Wannenburg arriving at Castres from Ulster and Luke Charteris joining Perpginan, and Wilkinson says the league is more competitive than ever. “Every team is strong with great players in all positions, so there’s no time to relax or stand still. If we don’t get it right then we could easily find ourselves finishing eighth or ninth.”
Rugby World was in Toulon last week to watch their final pre-season friendly, an early evening run-out against newly-promoted Mont-de-Marsan. The temperature was in the high 70s and the likes of Jenkins and Sheridan were struggling to acclimatise. But only with the heat. According to Wilkinson, off the park both players are loving their new life. “The new guys are fitting in really well,” he says. “I know what it’s like when you first arrive in France, particularly in a place like Toulon where the rugby is so full-on. It takes you by surprise to discover just how much the city loves its rugby. But the lifestyle change is a great one and it’s good to see the guys adapting to it and even speaking a bit of French!”
Toulon have two months of the Top 14 before their focus shifts to the Heineken Cup, a competition in which they first appeared two seasons ago. This time around the draw has been kind to Wilko and Co – they’ll have to get the better of Cardiff Blues, Sale and Montpellier if they wish to progress to the quarters. Wilkinson is far too experienced a pro to admit it’s a relatively easy draw, restricting himself instead to a diplomatic response. “We’ve avoided the likes of Leinster, Munster and Toulouse, who are known for destroying teams in Europe, but it’s what you make of it. The great thing about the Heineken Cup is it’s home and away so you never know what’s going to happen. Let’s just wait and see.”
Fortunately, as far as the Top 14 is concerned, the waiting is all but over. Let battle commence…