Wilkinson to stay in France
December 27, 2010
Jonny Wilkinson has been in impressive form for Toulon this season © Getty Images
Jonny Wilkinson's England career could come to an end as early as next autumn after the fly-half agreed a two-year contract extension with French club Toulon.
The Rugby Football Union wrote to the whole England squad last month announcing their "absolute intention" to only pick players from domestic clubs following the 2011 World Cup. But 31-year-old Wilkinson, who was recently voted the best overseas player in the French Top 14, has decided to commit himself to Toulon until the summer of 2013.
In an ideal world, Wilkinson would like to continue playing for both Toulon and England next season.
For that to happen, England would have to back down from their hard-line stance and claim Wilkinson qualified as an "exceptional circumstance". But there was no indication from Twickenham last night that Wilkinson would automatically be considered a special case just because of his standing in the game. That means that Wilkinson has stamped an expiry date of next autumn on an international career that dates back to 1998 and includes the 2003 World Cup triumph and two Lions tours.
England have taken the decision in the belief it will maximise their chances of winning the trophy on home soil in 2015. But Wilkinson recently outlined his intention to remain in the south of France, where he moved in 2008 to relaunch a career that had been so badly affected by injuries.
"I can understand where they are coming from and what they're saying. For me, in my situation at the moment, my main aim is to keep getting better and I made a move (to Toulon) a year-and-a-half ago to try to continue to do that," Wilkinson said. "I want to carry on doing that now. I am happy where I am, it fits the bill for me. I am enjoying the experience and I'm learning a hell of a lot. I owe a lot to these guys."
Wilkinson scored 302 points during his first season with Toulon, helping Philippe Saint-Andre's side to reach the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup, where they lost to Cardiff Blues, and the Top 14 semi-finals. He has been similarly impressive so far this campaign, helping Toulon to the top of a testing Heineken Cup pool which includes Munster, Ospreys and London Irish.
Club owner Mourad Boudjellal had previously stated his desire to keep England's 2003 World Cup hero "at any price".
The RFU will seek clarification from Wilkinson's representatives that his contract contains full international release clauses, should they decide to call on him as an "exceptional circumstance". That course of action could potentially open a can of worms for the RFU, given Stade Francais flanker James Haskell is also out of contract this summer.
If Haskell returns to the Premiership in order to conform to the RFU's wishes, England will find it difficult to explain any continued selection of Wilkinson from the south of France. Rugby Players' Union chief executive Damian Hopley recently warned that England's stance on not selecting players based abroad could be challenged under European law.
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