Callum Wilson has dealt with uncertainty for most of his career. The Biarritz Olympique centre and former England sevens player knows the life of a sportsman can change with the stroke of a pen on a contract without much notice. He once found out he was leaving a club over the loudspeakers of a stadium when the president addressed the fans after the final match of the season to tell them which players would be departing that summer. The coronavirus crisis has brought a different kind of uncertainty. The 29-year-old is currently locked down in his apartment aware that he may be out of contract by the end of the year.
Wilson is unable to leave his home in Bayonne without a note and can only exercise within one kilometre of the apartment. Every morning, he and his girlfriend prepare a detailed to-do list and work through it. His list contains exercises to keep his body in shape for the rigours of rugby and study for his preparations for life after rugby. His contract is winding down and Wilson is now unable to showcase his talent to interested clubs.
“I don’t know where I’m playing rugby next year. Even with that hanging over me, I’ve never been more productive. I want to play for at least another three years, but this period has forced me to think deeply about life after rugby and what I want to do with my life. It’s a worrying time for so many people in sport and across the world, but I am trying to control what I can, which is preparing for my future.”
Wilson is researching a career in executive coaching. He has an an eclectic rugby career, sharing changing rooms with players from all over the world, learning different languages and experiencing a variety of cultures. He has spent the last three years in France, initially at Soyaux Angouleme before stints with Bayonne and now Biarritz. He has grown to love life in France, but cautions against the rose-tinted vision that he is playing champagne rugby on sun-kissed turf.
“When I arrived in Angouleme, I stood waiting for 45 minutes in the rain and eventually was taken to this little studio flat overlooking a prison. I live a simple life, so knew I would just have to get on with it. I didn’t have a car, so even things like getting a bank account was a disaster. I had to walk 2km to the nearest bank and then I found out they weren’t open on Monday and didn’t even have cash available if you didn’t have a bank card. The simple things seemed impossible. I just needed to take any emotion out of it and seek the positive.”
On his first morning at the club, he was told to strip down to his underwear for a fat test in front of the team as they enjoyed their breakfast. It was an unconventional induction but he gained respect for having learnt a modicum of French. “I knew that language was going to be so crucial in how I settled in France. I had done around eight hours of private tuition before I arrived, but was keen to do more. The club helped me, of course, but I gained a higher level by getting to know some Mormons from Salt Lake City who were doing their mission here. I learned with them. They knew that I am not religious and didn’t try to convert me. Helping me to learn French just gave them something to do. I recommend going to them to players in Biarritz now and I still visit them to practice.”
During his time with the England sevens team, Wilson became accustomed to a structured approach to rugby. In France, he swapped the intricate gameplans that have made English rugby a muscular chessboard for the off-the-cuff game he had fallen in love with as a boy.
“Many players come to France and they think it’s all ‘jouez, jouez’ and a lighter training schedule. I had experienced the incredibly intensive cardio work with England sevens training, and I have never been run so hard in France. There wasn’t the same scientific approach that I was used to in England. We were encouraged to play on instinct, which often made the game a lot more enjoyable, and you had to be ready to react to whatever happened and not just go to the pre-programmed gameplan.”
Wilson became a crowd favourite in Angouleme, a town that has two great loves: comic books and rugby. He was asked for selfies in the local bakery and was pulled over by the police, not for speeding, but so they could ask him how his season was going. Wilson had played in front of 500 people on a good day in the Championship in England and was now entertaining crowds of 8,000 – complete with brass bands, pyrotechnics and cheerleaders.
“At home, every game is treated the same. In France, the home game takes a far greater significance. Believe it or not, some of this comes down to wine. There’s great pride in the quality of each region’s soil and its ability to produce a specific type of wine. This gives a real connection to the terre, the earth. They want to defend the town at all costs and rugby allows these small communities to do that against big towns, or powerhouses. In England, rugby can have a reputation of being an upper-class game. In the south of France, it’s the people’s game – no matter what background you come from you will support the local team.”
Wilson understands that passion and his extremely aggressive brand of rugby suits it, yet his calm demeanour initially confused his coaches. “At my first home games coaches were bollocking me for smiling in the changing room before we went out. I have always played my best rugby when I am enjoying myself and I like to be very calm before a game. Before home games, we would sit there for hours in silence, no talking, just getting up for the game. It means so much to them to win that game at home.”
Wilson signed for Biarritz last year but has not been given as much time on the field as he would like. The restrictions on foreign players have been tightened and he has found his opportunities limited. Now that coronavirus has decimated the rugby season, he does not have a suitable shop window to show off his talents.
“I believe that if you’re in a situation of uncertainty, you have to grab control. Whatever control you can grasp, you have to do it. So what can I control? I can ensure that I eat healthily. I can ensure that I do as much exercise to keep my body ready and finally, I can be proactive and see what opportunities are out there for me. I’m one of these people that is only happy when I’ve given everything, as you get older winning and losing is part of life, it’s the effort that you’ve put in that counts in life.”
Jonathan Drennan is on Twitter and you can read his interviews here.