- Heineken Cup - Jonny Wilkinson - rugby
Wilkinson to star in all-French Heineken Cup final
Chasing an elusive club title, Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson takes on Clermont in the all-French final of the Heineken Cup in Dublin on Saturday. "This game is all I have to play for," said the 33-year-old former England international.
Jonny Wilkinson will put his battered body through one more test of durability on Saturday as he attempts to guide Toulon to a first European Cup title in the all-French final against Clermont-Auvergne in Dublin.
“A game that is truly mouth-watering” opposing “two teams that are capable of playing absolutely majestic rugby,” said FRANCE 24’s Marc Owen, reporting from the Irish capital.
Despite a host of world-class players in both teams, Wilkinson’s name still stands out even in the twilight of a career that reached its peak 10 years ago when he kicked England to the World Cup in Sydney.
The flyhalf has enjoyed a new lease of life since his move to the south of France in 2009. His injuries have dried up and he remains one of the best goalkickers in rugby, booting all of Toulon’s points in its 24-12 semi-final victory over London Saracens last month.
“There’s not enough words to describe how much he means to Toulon and the fans,” said Toulon lock Simon Shaw, Wilkinson’s fellow former England international.
“Can you imagine if we do win something? He’s going to be a hero forever more,” Shaw told the Associated Press (AP), adding that the locals were talking of erecting a statue of Wilkinson in the port of Toulon.
'This is all I have got to play for,' says Wilkinson
Such has been the revival in Wilkinson’s career that he was invited to be part of the British and Irish Lions squad for this summer’s tour of Australia. He declined the call-up, however, with Lions coach Warren Gatland saying he was told by Wilkinson that “he’s struggling with his body and managing himself week to week” and that he was “hanging on with (his) fingernails.”
Still, Wilkinson, who turns 34 next week, is playing the 30th game of the season across the gruelling Heineken Cup and French Top 14 and still delivering the big hits in defence and the decisive kicks in attack. In March, he announced his decision to stay in Toulon for another year.
“These days, I try to make the most of one match at a time,” Wilkinson told reporters at a press conference on Friday.
“But to have the opportunity to play in a game like this for the first time at this stage of my career, it’s incredible.”
Wilkinson, the leading points scorer in the French Top 14 this season, has known only disappointment in Europe.
He has played in two losing Challenge Cup finals with Toulon, as well as last year's defeat to Toulouse in the final of France's Top 14.
“There’s no doubt that at this stage in my career, this is all I have got to play for. This gives you an idea of what this represents,” said the 2003 World Cup winner.
A star-studded game
Clermont, the favourites on Saturday, will attempt to become the first team since 1996 to go through the campaign undefeated. But “Toulon is a team full of stars,” warned FRANCE 24's Marc Owen.
It is likely there will be a full 30 internationals on the field at kickoff, with plenty more on the two benches.
Both Toulon and Clermont are finally delivering on years of promise and arguably have the most star-studded squads in European rugby.
“You could say it’s going to be physical,” said Clermont lock Nathan Hines, who is bidding to become only the fifth player since the inaugural Heineken Cup in 1995 to win it with two different teams.
“(Toulon) have strong forwards and power-runners, so there is danger pretty much everywhere. (...) It won’t just be about preventing Jonny Wilkinson from controlling the game, Jonny finishes what his team creates,” Hines told AP.
Whichever team wins, there will be a 10th new name on the European Cup. It will also be France’s sixth title, equaling the haul of Ireland and England.
“Whatever happens, of course, we have a French European champion”, said Marc Owen, adding that for France, “that’s certainly something to brag about".
(FRANCE 24 with wires)