James Wilson very at home in Northampton

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 13/06/2014
EXPANSIVE: James Wilson in action for English rugby champions Northampton Saints.
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EXPANSIVE: James Wilson in action for English rugby champions Northampton Saints.

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James Wilson grew up dreaming of playing baseball in the United States but has found a home playing rugby in England's east Midlands.

The Northampton fullback-cum-centre became the first Southlander to win an English premiership rugby medal when the Saints marched home in a gruelling extra-time final against Saracens at Twickenham a fortnight ago.

Wilson played the second half and 20 minutes of added time as Northampton claimed its first ever premiership title, a week after taking out a European Challenge final against Bath and 12 months after losing in the Twickenham final to Leicester.

Having played close to 30 games for the season at fullback and centre, the versatile 105kg, 193cm Wilson was one of the club's leading tryscorers with eight for the season, and the team's second string goalkicker.

The 31-year-old, who played 66 games for Southland as well as stints with the Highlanders and Chiefs in Super Rugby, will return to the Saints next season and is hopeful of spending a couple of years beyond that with the Midlands club before finally calling time on his rugby.

After a mixed career coloured by injury and missed opportunities in New Zealand, it seems Wilson has developed into the professional footballer he always looked capable of becoming.

Not bad considering the chance to play in England only arose after he left his second division French club when it struck financial difficulties.

''I'm loving everything about Northampton. They are great lads off the pitch. We have a big squad of 52 with the academy boys, and we are really tight-knit. Everyone looks after each other and that's the way it should be in a rugby environment, culture is massive,'' Wilson said.

''I'm definitely a different player to what I was here. The physicality, I learnt a lot about that playing in France. I think that helped me playing in the centres where you are marking world class players like Manu Tuilagi, who is a big boy.''

Injuries were often the biggest thing holding Wilson back in New Zealand, but he's been able to largely avoid them since heading overseas.

''They are really specific over there about your recovery and how you manage your body, more so than here. I work on strengthening the areas I need to a lot, on a daily basis. I was getting recurring hamstrings and shoulder problems and they are serious sort of injuries which can put you out for half a season.''

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Stereotypes aside, English rugby was shaped by the weather.

The rugby played at the start and end of the season was more expansive than that played in the middle of winter and the best teams were the ones which could adapt their game to suit the conditions, Wilson said.

English rugby retained a focus on the set piece, and a game between the two best club teams in either hemisphere would be fascinating if it could be worked into the calendar, he said.

Wilson will marry his fiance, Emma Windle, who works as a financial consultant, next year.

The couple have been living in England on a five-year visa courtesy of Emma's Scottish ancestry.

While Wilson still plays as an international import for Northampton, he would qualify for the England team next season, although there has been no interest from that quarter to date.

Wilson flatted for a time with former Highlanders player Dan Bowden and enjoyed regular catch-ups with Jimmy Cowan when the two played against each other in England.

JAMES WILSON

Stags 2003-2011 (66 games)

Highlanders 2007-2008 (18 games)

Chiefs 2009 (1 game)

CS Bourgoin Jailleu Rugby (France) 2011-2012

Northampton Saints (England) 2012-

- The Southland Times

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