The rugby world has been in mourning this week after the announcement that England legend Jonny Wilkinson is set to retire at the end of the season. Wilkinson has been a great ambassador for the sport and so will be a great loss for fans around the world, however none will notice it more keenly than Heineken Cup Champions Toulon.
Wilkinson has attained icon status on the French coast after joining En Rouge et Noir in 2009 where he has helped establish them as the foremost power in European rugby. Wilkinson has been cited as a key reason in their recent rise to the top of club rugby after retaining their Heineken Cup title in 2014. Club President Mourad Boudjellal has already claimed it will take two men just to replace Wilkinson at Toulon which leaves the French club with a serious dilemma.
The signing of Leigh Halfpenny appears to be the first piece of the puzzle as his metronomic kicking should help ensure Toulon keep the scoreboard ticking over next season. The signing of James O’Connor could also be considered another option for replacing Wilkinson as he brings a creativity and flexibility to the side which is essential at this level of rugby, although he looks more likely to compete for other positions in the backline.
The issue however remains that at present Toulon don’t seem to have an obvious contender for the 10 shirt ahead of next season. Whilst O’Connor, Giteau and Michalak are all capable of covering fly half, none would consider it their first choice position. It therefore now seems a priority for Toulon to focus on signing a World Class fly half over the summer, although this could be easier said than done with the World Cup kicking off at the end of next season. Here are a look at 10 potential options for Toulon;
1. Dan Carter
Carter is just about the only player in the world right now who can claim to be at least on a par with Wilkinson at fly half. The 100 times capped All Black is the record international points scorer and does have previous experience of playing in France, although this did end in disappointment.
The issue however is that Carter is likely to have to remain in New Zealand in order to guarantee a place in their World Cup squad so is unlikely to want to be available as an immediate replacement. Issues also remain over his ability to play through a full season without injury whilst retirement must also now be on his radar.
2. Danny Cipriani
After several years in the rugby wilderness Cipriani has now finally stepped back in from the cold after an excellent season at Sale Sharks which has resulted in them returning to the top flight of European rugby. This season Cipriani has finally addressed the questions over his defence and commitment to the team, and whilst not an aggressive tackler like Wilkinson, he’s shown a willingness to put his shoulder in.
A return to the England set-up this summer could encourage Cipriani to remain at Sale next season where he still has 1 year left to run on his contract, however it appears both Farrell and Ford will remain ahead of him in the pecking order. For this reason Cipriani may look at his options should Toulon come calling as England’s current 10’s both have time on their side.
3. Morné Steyn
With Toulon’s existing range of attacking option, Steyn could represent the ideal replacement for Wilkinson. His monstrous boot and all out commitment in defence make him an ideal man to step into Toulon’s number 10 shirt whilst the likes of Giteau and O’Connor add a touch of flair outside of him.
Steyn has had a disappointing season at Stade Français however it’s hard to argue with 54 caps with the Springboks. The biggest issue may be getting Steyn out of his current Stade contract however Boudjellal has shown before that he’s more than happy to splash the cash when called upon.
4. François Trinh-Duc
Trinh-Duc has had a sensational season in the Top 14 having guided his Montpellier side to a second place finish in the league. Montpellier were unfortunate to lose out to Castres in the Top 14 semi-final, however that should not take away from his performances this season.
Although Trinh-Duc may not be known for his aggression in defence like Wilkinson, his flair in attack could be a welcome addition to Toulon’s backline. The fact he seems to have been frozen out of the French team may be an additional bonus meaning he is available to Toulon for the whole season.
5. Nick Evans
The Kiwi fly half has long been considered one of the best fly halves in the Premiership, and incredibly unlucky not to have made more than 16 appearances for the All Blacks. Evans is the complete package with a kicking, running and defensive game that has helped Harlquins become one of the top teams in England over the last few years,
At 33 however Evans could be seen as nothing more than a short-term stand in whilst Toulon find Wilkinson’s long term replacement. This may however suit the French side as it allows them the time to find a long-term successor who they can build the club around for the future.
6. Pat Lambie
Lambie has already managed to accumulate 32 caps for the Springboks despite only being 23 years of age. Given South Africa’s policy of selecting overseas based players there is nothing holding Lambie back other than family based tied so could open the door to an approach by Toulon.
It is hard to see too many downsides to the Lambie option as he has plenty to offer whilst not having too many ties holding him back from a move. The only potential concern must be his ability to bed into a completely new environment, however with the likes of Giteau around him there would be no need to rush him straight into the first team.
7. Beauden Barrett
The Kiwi fly half is currently third in line to the All Blacks 10 jersey and could therefore be persuaded of a move to France. His stand-out form for the Hurricanes this season has given him a shot at the shirt once again, however it’s hard to imagine him leaping ahead of Cruden and Carter in the pecking order before the World Cup.
Barrett may therefore be persuaded to take a short-term deal in Toulon until Carter retires, at which time he may opt to return to New Zealand and battle it out with Cruden for the fly half spot. Despite his age this may mean he is only a short term option for Toulon, but given his current form he has to be worth a gamble.
8. Bernard Foley
With Quade Cooper’s injury Foley has the opportunity to stake a claim for the Wallabies number 10 jersey against the returning Kurtley Beale. This battle could dictate the potential availability of the Aussie fly-half and whether or not he appears on Toulons radar.
Foley has been an instrumental member of the Warratahs backline over the last couple of years and could be persuaded by a move given Toulon’s existing Australian connection. However, should he establish himself as a serious contender for the Wallabies 10 shirt in June it’s unlikely he would seek a move due to Australia not selecting overseas based players.
9. Ian Madigan
Madigan has helped to ensure that Leinster haven’t felt the loss of Johnny Sexton too keenly this season after a string of top-class performances. Given Ireland have been happy to continue selecting Sexton despite his move over to France, Madigan could be persuaded to follow suit, especially given Leinster already have Gopperth as an alternative.
Favourable benefits for Ireland’s top sportsmen could however persuade Madigan to remain at Leinster where he is likely to find it easier to break into the Ireland squad on a regular basis. His flexibility could however persuade Toulon to pursue him quite aggressively where he would be excellent playing inside or outside Giteau.
10. Jules Plisson
Plisson ended up leading the French backline during this years 6 Nations after a number of injuries to those ahead of him opened up the way. Despite not setting the world alight, Plisson acquitted himself well and has shown enough to suggest he has a bright future in the game.
Plisson is another fly half who has questions over his defence however his flair ball in hand could be a big plus for Toulon. The biggest issue is likely to be persuading Stade to let one of their prized assets leave for a major Top 14 competitor.
Who would you choose to replace Wilkinson?