James Wilson half-smiles when he recalls his introduction to how brutal and unforgiving French club rugby can be.
“In the second or third training session,” he says, “I ended up with eight stitches across my forehead, so that was a bit of a wake-up, but it definitely helped me personally with my physical game.
“There is a lot more contact and you have to be very aggressive on defence and in attack with the ball in hand. I learnt so much from doing that and it added to my game which I’m very thankful for.”
That came this time last year and after a season playing in Pro D2 with Bourgoin, the centre from New Zealand is getting ready to fulfil his ambition of playing Aviva Premiership rugby after signing for Northampton Saints.
Fortunately, the 29-year-old’s first run out on the training ground for his new club didn’t end with any blood being drawn, although he admitted it was tiring having only just arrived in England from his homeland last Friday.
Hailing from the sports-mad – particularly rugby – city of Invercargill in south west New Zealand, it is perhaps little surprise that Wilson gravitated towards the sport and went on to represent the provincial side, Southland, for eight years.
He also gained experience of playing Super Rugby with the Highlanders and Chiefs franchises, but perhaps the highlight was helping Southland, not once but twice, defeat the mighty Canterbury to win the Ranfurly Shield – the country’s oldest provincial competition.
The first win in 2009 was the first time the Stags had held the ‘Log o’ Wood’, as it is nicknamed, for 50 years, while the second time last year Wilson helped them regain the Shield with a drop goal.
Both wins were celebrated heartily by the Invercargill public and Wilson sees similarities between his hometown and Northampton, particularly after talking to George Pisi about life at the Saints.
He said: “You’re a proud rugby town, you really get behind the players and the team, and that’s exactly the same sort of values as we have got where I’m from. Our town is the same because we get behind the team and it’s great to see.
“It’s a massive part of the culture back home, especially where I’m from – it’s a very proud province. I playedmy first game for them when I was still at school and then I ended up playing for them for eight years. It was a lot of time and I’m very proud to have been able to represent my province in that way.”
Although he has featured at fly-half and full back during his career, Wilson has his sights set on securing the inside centre spot at Northampton, although he knows he faces competition after the Saints recruited heavily in the midfield over the summer.
Nevertheless, Wilson believes that his experience of being hardened by the battles in French rugby has served him well for the role, saying: “I’m a guy that can bring a lot of aggression to defence and I play like a ten as well. I see space and that’s a big thing that can help out the team.
I can run and defensively I don’t like letting anyone get past me. That’s a big factor in how I play and I like to be aggressive in that area.”