On the back of Brian O’Driscoll’s Test retirement, Jonny Wilkinson is set to end his 17-year rugby career at the end of the season.
Wilkinson, a World Cup winner with England in 2003, has been mulling over his career options for the past 18 months and is on the verge of publicly confirming his decision. There has been no official word from Toulon, or the out-half, but The Rugby Paper, on Sunday, quoted a source close to Leigh Halfpenny that may expedite an announcement. Halfpenny will join Toulon from Cardiff Blues in the summer.
“Jonny is finishing,” the source commented. “He’ll be calling it a day once the season is over and after that he’ll be helping Halfpenny settle in. Leigh’s always willing to learn and having Jonny as his mentor will make him even better.”
As well as the impending Halfpenny arrival, Toulon had lined up Castres’ goal-kicking scrum-half Rory Kockott. The France-qualified South African opted to stay with the current Top 14 champions, however. Toulon boss Bernard Laporte has spoken of the requirement of getting in two world-class players with kicking skills to replace Wilkinson. With the Englishman now into the final three months of his playing career and Kockott remaining with Castres, it would appear likely that out-half Frederic Michalak’s future in the south of France is secure.
Wilkinson spoke, last month, about his enjoyment in coaching teammates and younger players in training. He may be asked to stay on at Toulon as a club ambassador and kicking coach. Capped 91 times for England and six times with the British and Irish Lions, Wilkinson turned down the chance to tour to Australia with Warren Gatland’s Lions. He told the coaching staff his body was ‘hanging on by its fingernails’ and he needed a break if he was to play on with Toulon for another season.
Wilkinson, who will turn 35 in May, is still chasing silverware in the league and Heineken Cup. He started on the bench on Friday as Toulon lost 22-16 to rivals Clermont at Stade Marcel Michelin. Clermont are three points clear of second placed Toulon with four league matches to play.
Toulon will host Leinster in the quarter final of the Heineken Cup on 6 April. The last clash of O’Driscoll and Wilkinson is set to be a fascinating sub-plot to an already huge game.