If it takes a serious man to win a serious piece of rugby silverware, there must be a very good chance that Jonathan Peter Wilkinson Esq will drive Toulon to a successful defence of their Heineken Cup title at the Millennium Stadium this evening – a feat so rare that only two genuinely great sides, the Leicester of Martin Johnson and the Leinster of Brian O’Driscoll, have ever achieved it. Wilkinson was at his most solemn and straight-faced as he weighed the prospects yesterday and if he has his way, the rest of the Côte d’Azur glitterati will be every bit as driven.
The fact that neither Wilkinson nor the Heineken Cup will be with us next season – the celebrated outside-half is retiring on his own terms at the end of next weekend’s French Championship final against Castres in Paris; the most captivating of tournaments will be forcibly wound down at the end of today’s showpiece – gives the occasion an unusually sharp emotional edge, and by close of play tonight there may not be a dry eye under the stadium roof. Not that the biggest name in the world game was in any mood to personalise it.
“This is the biggest game of my life because it’s the next game,” said Jonny-boy, who, not for the first time in his long career – or, indeed, the 101st – disappeared headlong into a fog of self-analysis. “To me, next week doesn’t exist. The last so-many years don’t exist either. This is about the here and now and it’s incredible that we’re talking about a Heineken Cup final. But if things go well for me and don’t go well for the team, it won’t please me one bit. I don’t care what happens to me. It isn’t more serious somehow because I’m the one who’s finishing. The rest of the team aren’t finishing and they’re the important ones.”
As Wilkinson was holding court, the great and good of Toulon rugby society – the club’s principal investor, the comic magazine magnate Mourad Boudjellal, and the city’s mayor, Hubert Falco – filed in to listen to his words of wisdom. After he had finished, his head coach, Bernard Laporte, could be heard comparing him to wondrous French footballer Zinedine Zidane. “There is only one outstanding sportsman in a generation,” Laporte said. “Years ago I said that we had Zidane while England had Wilkinson. I was right.”
Wilkinson had equally kind things to say about the young Saracens playmaker Owen Farrell, his long-term successor in the England team. “He is Saracens in a nutshell,” the senior man commented. “As a team they are highly consistent – whatever the day, whatever the conditions, they seem to come through – and to do that you need a clear sense of understanding and a high degree of mental toughness, together with the expertise that comes from hard work. Owen gives them that with his decision-making and for someone to do it so early in his career is incredible.”
But he saved his most generous tribute for the Saracens captain Steve Borthwick, who also has two games left to him, both of them finals and, like the Toulon skipper, will make the switch from playing to coaching once those matches are behind him. In many ways, Wilkinson and Borthwick are kindred spirits: neither man is renowned for his light-hearted approach to the game – if they launched themselves as a comedy double act, it would be the equivalent of “The Wise and Wise Show” – but when it comes to application and perfectionism, they are miles ahead of their peers.
“I played alongside Steve for England Schools and there’s a huge amount to be said for him,” Wilkinson said. “He’s never compromised his values and those values sum up rugby brilliantly. The fact that he’s staying in the game is good news. It’s always been a goal of mine to leave the game in a better place than it was when I arrived and I’d like to think I’m doing that. Steve has definitely done it. You can see that by the effect he’s had on Saracens.”
Whether the Borthwick effect will be enough to secure a first Heineken Cup title for his club at the last time of asking is far from certain. Saracens have enjoyed an outstanding season, but two of their five front-line defeats were against French opposition – the home and away European tussles with Toulouse. In any other year, no shame would have been attached to those reverses against the undisputed aristocrats of the northern hemisphere game, but Toulouse have been a pale shadow of themselves this term. The fact that they still managed to spook the Londoners is patently a concern.
Saracens have a ready-made answer to the charge that they are at their most vulnerable against opponents from the far side of the Channel: they can point to the runaway semi-final victory over Clermont Auvergne, the ante-post favourites for the title, at Twickenham earlier this month. But Clermont were more brittle than anyone imagined – that much became clear a few days later as they relinquished their 77-game winning streak on home soil – and it is now commonly accepted that when it comes to rugby psychology, Toulon are far and away the strongest-minded team in the country.
They also have more world-class players, in more positions, than anyone else – and that includes Saracens, who, heaven knows, are not exactly bereft of top-end international talent. While the Londoners can boast a pair of free-scoring wings in Chris Ashton and David Strettle, both of whom have turned a trick or two for England down the years, Toulon can trump them with the Wallaby wide man Drew Mitchell and the electrifying Springbok maestro Bryan Habana. If Sarries are nobody’s fools in midfield, it is a little far-fetched to claim that they match the potency of Matt Giteau and Mathieu Bastareaud, a “beauty and the beast” centre pairing if ever there was one.
According to Mark McCall, the Saracens rugby director, it is Giteau who provides Toulon with their point of difference, to use the current coaching jargon. “He’s a very special player,” said the Ulsterman. “He has a fantastic passing game, he kicks beautifully and he’s stronger and quicker than people think. Superb, really.” If tonight’s audience leave the stadium wondering how, in the name of all that is holy, the Wallabies can continue to ignore their most creative inside centre as World Cup year approaches, it is likely that Toulon will be celebrating another title.
Yet there is a sense of togetherness about Saracens, a depth of competitive spirit, that makes them terribly difficult to beat. Defensively, they are every bit as secure as Toulon – possibly more so – and it says something for the quality of Farrell’s marksmanship that his bad days with the boot are almost as infrequent as his opposite number’s. If it comes down to a simple question of which No 10 blinks first, the two teams might still be playing tomorrow.
For Wilkinson, it is one of those whatever-it-takes moments. “I knew deep inside that this was the right time to confirm my retirement,” he said, reflecting on his announcement at the start of the week, “and yes, I feel some relief that the decision has been made. But that doesn’t change anything in respect of this game. To have the opportunity to win this tournament again is amazing, but the thought of leaving Cardiff without a victory is pretty painful. We have to ensure that doesn’t happen.”