Rugby league veteran and foodie, Jon Wilkin is looking forward to sampling what Toronto has to offer when the Wolfpack return home.
The 35-year-old forward, a former England and Great Britain international, joined the transatlantic team last October after 16 years with St. Helens and one with Hull Kingston Rovers. He made his Wolfpack debut last weekend in a 14-0 win at York City Knights in Betfred Championship play.
“It’s been awesome,” he said of his time with the team to date. “I’ve done the same thing for 17 years ... So something new and something different was going to be just exciting for me. It’s been a real change.
“I think change is equal part exciting and scary, isn’t it at first. Initially there was a bit of that — some anxiety about change and then I’ve just been overwhelmed with excitement really about the opportunity that we’ve got. Just delighted to be involved.”
Toronto plays Sunday at Rochdale Hornets, which had a bye last week.
Wilkin is an entrepreneur as well as an athlete. Off the field, he serves as a TV pundit and restaurateur. He has two coffee/brunch spots in central Manchester named Pot Kettle Black, with two more slated to open next October and January.
“We do good bread, good eggs, good coffee,” he said. “That’s going really well.”
He talks rugby league for the BBC and, recently, Sky Sports — something he calls a hobby.
“I’d do it anywhere,” he said. “And food and drink is a passion of mine. You say (I stay) busy but I think just fulfilled really. I’m just doing all the things I love. The more of I can do the better.”
He will be casting his restaurateur’s eye on Toronto when the Wolfpack opens the home half of their schedule April 28.
“I’ll be spying on all the best coffee spots in Toronto,” he said. “I’ll be eating my way through the brunch restaurants of Canada to bring some cool things back to Manchester.”
He will have company in wife Francesca Wilkin (nee Halsall), a former Olympic swimmer who retired in January 2017.
“She’s bringing her credit card and she’s already in the process of booking restaurants as we speak,” he said cheerfully.
Wilkin says his wife’s athletic career gives her an edge over him when it comes to dining.
“She’s used to eating a lot of food. Those guys consume a lot of calories,” he said wistfully.
Halsall, a sprint freestyle specialist, competed in the 2008, ‘12 and ‘16 Olympics. She finished just 0.02 seconds off the podium in the 50-metre freestyle in Rio.
Halsall won three gold and seven silver medals at the Commonwealth Games. Her medal haul also includes gold in the 4x100 medley relay team at the 2015 World Championships and the 50-metre backstroke at the 2016 European Championships.
Wilkin also has an impressive trophy case. He won two Grand Finals, four Challenge Cups and a World Club Challenge while scoring 94 tries in 424 appearances for St. Helens.
“An outstanding fellow as well. An outstanding leader,” said Wolfpack director of rugby Brian Noble, a rugby league legend in his own right.
“Don’t underestimate the prowess that Jon Wilkin brings on the field,” he added. “He’s an outstanding rugby league footballer and he’s an outstanding bloke off the field as well. The people of Toronto are going to like his box-office style and the way that he runs the team.”
Wilkin credits his restaurant experience for adding to those leadership skills.
“Things I thought I knew about — teams and group dynamics and how people work together,” said the former St. Helens captain. “But being in business and working with people in restaurants has taught me lots of things that I use every day on the rugby field now. It’s been really useful both ways.”
Wilkin, who has never been to Canada, had other offers from big clubs but said he heard nothing but “amazing things” about Toronto.
“The opportunity for growth in Toronto, the opportunity to travel and live in a city as cool as Toronto, that was something you just can’t let pass you by. I knew I would have regretted it if I didn’t take it.”
He is no stranger to the Wolfpack roster, having played at St. Helens with Gary Wheeler and Andrew Dixon and against the likes of Ashton Sims, Bob Beswick and several others.
“Rugby league’s a tight little family so I knew a bit about everyone,” Wilkin said. “So it’s not been tough to settle in. It’s been a breeze really. They’re a good group of lads who are dead passionate about getting this going in Toronto. They’re really keen to push it and promote and be good ambassadors for the sport in Toronto.”
At 35, Wilkin is still going strong. But ask him how the body feels and he jokingly replies “Old. Older than it did 10 years ago.”
“Rugby league’s really attritional, it’s hard on the body. The reason why I’m still playing now is because I’ve been adaptable. I’ve constantly had to change my role — how I play, I’ve had to roll with the punches. I’ve never been a stubborn guy so I’ve never just gone ‘This is what I do and that’s it, I’m not doing anything else.“’
Off the field, Wilkin campaigned long for a players’ union. He has also served as a U.K. Anti-Doping team sports ambassador.