Heineken Cup final: Jonny Wilkinson entering a golden era

Toulon’s indestructible perfectionist celebrates his 34th birthday next week but is on the verge of a trophy double to confirm his status as the kicking king

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The Independent Online

David Beckham never hit a nail more squarely on the head than when he and Jonny Wilkinson got together for a sportswear firm’s viral video in 2003. “How long do you practise every day?” Beckham asked the already well-fêted fly-half. “I can’t leave until I’m happy,” Wilkinson replied.

Ten years on, and just a little behind Beckham in winding down his career with a club in France, the Goldenballs of the oval game aims today to help Toulon win the first half of a domestic-European double. Will it make Jonny happy? Happier, let’s say, to be on the safe side.

While Beckham is bidding adieu with Paris Saint-Germain, Wilkinson has signed for one more year at Toulon but indicated he would return to England to live after that. The more interesting parallel is in the status the two men have earned, and far from painlessly.

Among spectators, a phenomenon became noticeable as Wilkinson’s international career was tailing off and he was being selected on the bench for England, if at all. The mere appearance of his face on Twickenham’s big screen would draw affectionate applause, rising to hysteria if he actually took the field; ditto Beckham in his final days at Wembley.

Among Wilkinson’s peers, there is a unique look of respect in opponents’ eyes. They almost queue up to shake his hand at the final whistle, win or lose. Confirmation of this comes from Simon Shaw, the Toulon lock forward who has missed out on selection for this afternoon’s Heineken Cup final against Clermont Auvergne in Dublin. He first played with Wilkinson for England in 2000, having initially faced him at club level for Wasps against Newcastle in April 1998.

“The difficulty I have is that I don’t treat him that way, because he himself wants to be treated as anyone else,” said Shaw. “He doesn’t see himself as anything extraordinary – a level apart or above the players he’s playing against – he just thinks of himself as slightly different in how he prepares for the game. But there are few people in sport, entertainment or whatever field they’re in, who become iconic in their prime, while they’re still doing what they’re doing. A lot of them become iconic after their passing. The likes of Jonny and Becks [this season] are still out there, still doing it. Clearly people look up to them. It’s more interesting when people see them.”

Some of the public affection for Wilkinson derives from his unfailingly gentlemanly demeanour. But there must be a nod, too, to his infamous obsession with getting his game right, to distressing levels. His autobiography in 2011 gruellingly recounted episodes of self-harming midway through his career; winning a World Cup was not nearly enough to stem his pursuit of perfection. Not then and not now.

“Jonny is much the same bloke as ever, he trains as intensely as ever,” says Shaw. “I wouldn’t say he’s that much more social than he was. He’s been around to my house for dinner, he’s come out to a restaurant once or twice. He treats the weekend and the game as the most important thing in every week that goes by. When we have a weekend off he escapes to Dubai or his place in Majorca, and I imagine he’d stick a set of posts up somewhere and boot a few balls still. He has to have that test – and it is always a test for him – at the end of each week.”

Tom Whitford, the Toulon team manager who used to play for Richmond, grew up in the same part of Surrey as Wilkinson (visit Farnham RUFC’s new grounds and the address you’ll need is Wilkinson Way), played against him at club level and helped smooth his move to the south of France in 2009. “Jonny was injured on and off for four years after the 2003 World Cup,” Whitford says. “He felt he owed Newcastle something – and I know him, he’s such a loyal man – but it became a vicious circle, quite negative for him. He had some real issues to deal with; personal issues but also with the club. I think the time arose when if he didn’t move on, it might have broken him, even.

“He needed a new challenge and he came here to Toulon; something completely different. We still try and tell him to reduce his workload but he won’t. That’s his work ethic, and he won’t let go of it. He comes in to practise the day after a match, he writes everything down in his notebook.

“But the key thing is that people refer to us as a team of mercenaries, and we don’t like that term at all. We are trying to create longevity, and Jonny is a big part of that. He brings on other players, the youngsters and the fellow pros. He expects the best for himself but also for the others around him. He’s giving his all, and that makes the others give their best around him. He is truly inspirational, for the staff and the supporters. The old adage is that hard work pays off – and it really does.”

So Wilkinson’s broken body, bronzed by the sun, has rebounded. Remarkably, today’s start (as captain, to boot) will be his 102nd for Toulon in four seasons. He lives quietly with his girlfriend, Shelley, among the vineyards in Bandol, 10 miles west of Toulon at the western extremity of the Côte d’Azur. His obligations to club sponsors and the media are managed carefully. “I love being here,” Wilkinson told Total Rugby last year. “It’s given me a new stretch of life and allowed me to just love rugby for what it is.”

The reciprocal feeling was summed up in a hushed-tone paean of a TV documentary aired on Canal Plus last December, entitled Sir Wilkinson. “It’s not just Jonny but he’s a blessing and as a person off the pitch he almost carries the Toulon name,” said Matt Giteau, the Australian whose vision and distribution at centre complement the plotting of the general inside him.

Wilkinson will turn 34 next Saturday, the day after Toulon play their Top 14 semi-final with Toulouse in Nantes, with the final on 1 June. If all goes well in the next two weeks, Wilkinson will double his career total of club trophies. He came into the Newcastle Falcons team, aged 18, for the second half of the 1997-98 Premiership-winning season and added the Tetley’s Bitter Cup in 2001. And later this summer, could there be a third Lions tour? As twists in a tale go, it would be a tornado. Bear in mind the 2011 World Cup with England did not go well for Wilkinson. “You realise you’re messing around with a level of rugby that is hugely unforgiving,” is how he recalls it.

Clermont are the leaders of the Top 14, and have Castres in the semi-finals, so today could be part one of a double-header to be completed in Paris in a fortnight. Toulon have not scored a try in their past three Heineken Cup matches; Wilkinson’s brilliant, off-balance drop goal just before Owen Farrell crashed into him completed an archetypal forward-dominated, all-kicking destruction of Saracens in the semi-final. Will the gloriously all-court Clermont be similarly overcome?

“I hope both sides play a little bit,” says Shaw. “But semi-finals and finals are tricky. Not giving away penalties and not dropping balls becomes crucial and it all becomes a bit tense. You need a bold coach and fearless players to go out to win by scoring tries. If it’s a battle up front and a kicking competition, my money’s on Jonny.”

Clermont Auvergne v Toulon: Match details

Six British players are involved in today’s final. Toulon have Jonny Wilkinson, Delon Armitage, Andrew Sheridan and Nick Kennedy, while Clermont’s starting XV includes the Wales full-back Lee Byrne and former Scotland lock Nathan Hines.

Clermont  Auvergne  L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire, G Vosloo, D Chouly.

Toulon  D Armitage; R Wulf, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, A Palisson; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous-Borde; A Sheridan, S Bruno, C Hayman, B Botha, N Kennedy, D Rossouw, J M Fernandez Lobbe, C Masoe.

Ref A Rolland (Irl)

Kick-off 5pm, Aviva Stadium, Dublin TV Sky Sports 1.