Wilkins savouring his second chance at Saints

“On my first day here we spoke about how we don’t like Leicester so I guess that’s not changing any time soon.”

Saturday, 7th August 2021, 7:00 am
Karl Wilkins (picture: Northampton Saints)

Those are the words of Karl Wilkins, who has finally returned to Saints after seven years in France.

The back row forward, who can also strut his stuff at lock, was in the Academy at Franklin’s Gardens before making a brave move to Montferrand as an 18-year-old.

It is one that has paid off as Wilkins has now earned a chance to become a fixture in the first-team setup at Saints, having come home from ProD2 side Béziers.

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And when asked how much has changed at Saints since he left, Wilkins said: “The stadium looks as I remembered it, the gym.

“A few things have changed and while it’s not quite the same, it’s familiar.

“I know a fair few of the lads but obviously I haven’t spoken to them for a while and a few of them are still away.

“But it’s nice to go in and know a few of the lads.

“I’d always speak to Luds (Lewis Ludlam) and he’s doing really well - I’m pleased for him. I’ve watched him from afar and it will be nice to hopefully play alongside him.”

With Wilkins setting his sights on the Saints No.6 shirt, there is every chance that he and long-time friend Ludlam could line up alongside each other on numerous occasions.

“In France, it’s funny because the seven and six are very different,” Wilkins explained. “The seven is always on the right side of the scrum and the six is always on the left so you kind of end up with two six and a halves.

“The seven is more the lineout jumper whereas here that would traditionally be the six.

“Here, it’s probably more of a six that I would be.

“I’m still growing into my role.”

Still only 25, Wilkins has packed a lot into his career so far.

The Ipswich-born player was part of the Saints squad that won the Premiership’sUnder-18 Academy League in the 2013/14 season.

That squad also included the likes of Harry Mallinder, George Furbank, Ludlam, Rory Hutchinson and James Fish.

So why did Wilkins opt to move to France at 18?

“In my Under-18 year, which is obviously a massive year here, I broke my leg at the start of that and I just couldn’t really get back fit enough to play enough of the Academy games and play

well,” he said.

“We had a really talented year group and I understood the club couldn’t take everyone on.

“I probably wasn’t playing as well as I could have done and they took on different players, which was tough to swallow.

“But as I matured and grew up quickly in France, I realised it was a fair decision and it was up to me to come back from it.

“They have an espoir system in France - espoir means hope - and it’s a league format for Under-23s that mirrors the Top 14 format.

“So when my agent asked me if I would be open to it and he explained it to me, I thought it would be great because it was a lot of game time and a good experience.

“At the time, it was a big French club (Clermont Auvergne) who wanted me and it was exciting.

“It was a good chance to play regular rugby whereas if I thought I was going to stay in England, I might have had to go down a few leagues to get that game time.

“In my first season at Clermont I played 22 or 23 league games.

“I just wanted game time and it was a win-win at the time.”

Not that Wilkins wasn’t daunted by the decision he had made as a teenager...

“I grew up pretty quickly because I was only 18 when I left and it sort of only hit home the night before I was flying out,” he said.

“I was thinking I’m not actually sure when I’ll be coming back and seeing my family and all of this so it sort of hit home but once I got out there, made some friends and cracked on, it was good.

“It was a great experience, a great seven years and I can obviously now speak a little bit of French.

“I made some great friends and was lucky to get quite a lot of pro game time in the past couple of years.

“I guess it was like a seven-year Uni course or a seven-year detour.”

But that seven-year journey is now at an end as Wilkins is back at Saints ahead of the new season.

He was initially contacted about a return home in January, and it was an opportunity he relished.

“I got a lot of game time in the past couple of seasons and I am at the age where I want to kick on and see if I can have a crack at the highest level,” Wilkins

said.

“I had a Zoom call in January and I spoke to all the coaches so it came about from there.

“I would watch the odd Saints game and whenever Lewis (Ludlam) was playing I would always watch.

“I used to go and watch Saints as a kid and I was chatting to Tom Wood the other day, talking about the 2011 final against Leinster in the Heineken Cup and I was actually there watching that one.”

Saints will hope to take part in many more finals in the next few years.

And Wilkins said: “I watched last season when they were doing really well in that fight for the top four and it was just some small little things that meant they lost out.

“You can see how tight this league is so it’s about being able to correct or minimise the little errors as much as possible

and overall we’ll see a few more wins.

“They’re not missing much to get into the top four or even the top two.”