Wilkinson hurtling towards green light for Ireland
BRETT WILKINSON blushes easily, something that has not gone unnoticed among his Connacht team-mates.
Last week, word got out that the 26-year-old was celebrating his year-long relationship with a local Galway girl and the boys went to town. 'Anniversary Week' prompted cards, speeches and constant romantic jibes, with the amiable prop playing his part by going beetroot whenever the subject came up.
The embarrassment factor did not prevent Wilkinson from playing a full part in Connacht's redemptive victory over Bayonne (helping to ease the horror of defeat to Italian part-timers Cavalieri the week before) and further emphasised the South African's importance to, and popularity within, Eric Elwood's squad.
Ireland have decided not to replace injured loose-head Marcus Horan in their panel for the November internationals but, if they had, Wilkinson's name would have been top of the list.
He has made tremendous progress since joining Connacht in 2006 and his qualification for Ireland has been recognised with senior training call-ups and 'A' international appearances against Tonga and the Argentina Jaguars.
Born in Grahamstown on the Eastern Cape, Wilkinson attended the prestigious Kingswood College, where his rugby prowess quickly became apparent. Moving on to the University of Cape Town, where he came under the tutelage of former Ulster coach Alan Solomons and ex-Ulster and Springbok prop Robbie Kempson, Wilkinson's progress was impressive enough to catch the eye of South Africa's professional franchises.
However, with Ireland on the look-out for props prepared to go through the qualification process in a problem position for the national side, Wilkinson took the plunge and spurned advances from Currie Cup franchise Western Province to head north and then west to Connacht.
It has worked out extremely well for both parties. He picked up his 100th cap for the province against Cavalieri and, although it would have been preferable to achieve that honour in happier circumstances, it was testament to the impact Wilkinson has made, first under Michael Bradley and now Eric Elwood.
Central to that has been a willingness to work hard at his game and, under the guidance of forwards coach Dan MacFarland, Wilkinson's scrummaging, work rate and ball-carrying have come on hugely.
Connacht's starting front-row of Wilkinson, hooker Sean Cronin and tight-head Jamie Hagan is a match for any unit on the Magners League or Challenge Cup circuits and will be out to make a point when Leinster arrive at the Sportsground tomorrow.
Cronin deservedly made the Ireland squad last Tuesday, but Hagan joined Wilkinson on the outside and tomorrow is an opportunity for them to vent their frustrations. As his regular front-row colleagues, Cronin and Hagan are good sources for insight into Connacht's low-profile, highly regarded powerhouse.
"Brett is playing out of his skin for us this season," says Cronin. "You look at his stats after games and he is up there with the back-rows in terms of tackles made and hit-ups. It's important for a hooker to gel with his loose-head, particularly when you come up against the bigger teams when their tight-head goes after me.
"Me and Brett know each other's games very well, it's really gelled together at this stage. He's worked really hard at it and I think Dan has brought the best out of him.
"He's part of the furniture at Connacht now after five seasons and a really popular member of the squad. There's an image of South Africans being all serious and heavy-going, but Brett's not like that at all.
"He's used to the Irish way now, all the slagging, but because he embarrasses easily he gets a hard time -- we gave him an awful going over about the anniversary."
Hagan is similarly effusive about Wilkinson qualities, on and off the field. "A big old hunk of South African beef," is Hagan's description. "Some of the lads call him 'The Wildebeest', although the crueller fellas call him 'Augustus Gloop' because of his accent and yer man in 'Willy Wonka'.
"But it gives you confidence when you are packing down with him and Sean in the front row," adds Hagan. "His scrummaging technique is excellent -- any time I come up against him in live scrummaging it's really tough -- he does the bread and butter stuff really well and he's dynamic in the loose."
After years of depending on the fitness of Munster stalwarts John Hayes and Horan, Ireland is, all of a sudden, awash with propping talent and Wilkinson definitely looks like one for the future. He is also coming into the peak age for front-row forwards.
Hagan has no qualms about backing his colleague for international honours.
"I think he would be a huge asset to Ireland down the line, without a doubt. I went up to watch him play for the 'A' side against Argentina and he destroyed their scrum.
"I know Brett has ambitions to play for Ireland, that's why he came over and he's definitely up to it."