Jonny Wilkinson, the former England fly-half, out-duelled the current incumbent Toby Flood by seven kicks to five as the two scored every point in a gripping Heineken Cup quarter-final in Toulon.
In doing so, Wilkinson ensured that he and not his great friend will be back at Twickenham on 28 April to take on Saracens in the semi-final.
He even broke Leicester hearts with a last-minute drop goal that echoed the treatment he meted out to the Australians in the 2003 World Cup final. Wilkinson slotted six penalties and a drop goal for Toulon to Flood’s five penalties to further cement his status as one of France’s favourite Englishmen.
“It’s a great victory for the club,” Wilkinson said afterwards. “It was a big occasion and this is a first for us. That is why I signed a new contract, for days like this.
“The joy and desire to play with this team, the energy and togetherness we feel is what has kept me going.
“The atmosphere was a little bit bigger than normal but we deal with similar every week. It’s one of the reasons that makes it so difficult to start thinking about stopping playing.
“It was a phenomenally difficult game,” he added, “and it is no wonder Leicester Tigers are always at the top of the Premiership and reaching quarters, semis and finals of the Heineken Cup.”
Wilkinson admitted Saracens present a formidable challenge but he is relishing his return to HQ. He added: “We will learn a lot from that and hopefully we can go on and use that knowledge in the semi-final against Saracens. It will be great to be back at Twickenham but it’s also the occasion that counts. We know it’s a hell of an ask but we have given ourselves a chance and must continue to work hard.”
Toulon, who are now one step closer to the domestic and European double, found themselves on the receiving end right from the start as Leicester moved the scoreboard on with three Flood penalties, but it was the Tigers fly-half who let them back in.
He was given a yellow card for a deliberate knock-on which stopped a Toulon attack. Wilkinson stepped to kick the penalty after Flood trudged unhappily to the sin bin, and added a second when a ball flipped back from a ruck was helped by a Leicester hand according to referee George Clancey.
But Flood was back on just in time to try to extend the lead again with a minute left of a half which had seen Dan Cole take the upper hand in the scrum over Andrew Sheridan.
Flood led the sons of Frimley kicking competition – both he and Wilkinson are from the town on the Surrey-Hampshire border – and Matthew Tait, solid under the high ball all afternoon except for one, completed a dancing run out of defence that eclipsed anything that Delon Armitage could concoct.
Unfortunately, the Tigers had also lost Tom Croft to a back injury in the last minute of the half, a worry perhaps not just for Leicester but also for England coach Stuart Lancaster.
After the break Wilkinson slotted a penalty to level the scores at 9-9 and then hit another 40-yarder to take the lead, lifting Toulon hearts just when they needed it most. Two charges to the line, the first by Mathieu Bastareaud – the Manu Tuilagi versus Bastareaud re-run which was such a nightmare for the Frenchman against England never materialised – the second by Bakkies Botha were followed by Marcus Ayerza being helped off to be replaced by Mulipola Logovi’i in the Leicester front row.
The final 25 minutes promised a severe test of mind and body as Mickal Ivaldi came on to replace the Toulon hooker, Bruno Dubois, and Gethin Jenkins came on for Sheridan.
Sheridan was followed off by Cole, given a yellow for slapping down a pass, and Wilkinson added the three points. Another, countered by Flood, left everything finely poised, including the appearance of Martin Castrogiovanni, likely to join the Toulon ranks soon .
The beaten Leicester coach, Richard Cockerill, admitted the defeat was hard to swallow but he said he had few complaints and paid tribute to his side’s display.
Cockerill said: “We have no complaints over the result and no complaints with the performance. It was outstanding from both sides. It was a good contest and we pushed them all the way. We could easily have won, the effort was phenomenal, we never gave up and we were right in it until the end.
“But Toulon are a very good team and they managed to sneak it.”
Croft limped off in the first half of the defeat with a back spasm and Cockerill dismissed any long term fears. But he confirmed that Ayerza suffered a suspected broken collarbone and that he has raised the incident to the citing commissioner.
He added: “It looks like Ayerza’s broken his clavicle from knee that Botha put in. I have asked the citing commissioner to look at it.
“People are sent from the field for slapping the ball down but you don’t look at incidents like that – it makes the reffing world mad.”
Scorers: Toulon: Penalties Wilkinson 6; Drop goal Wilkinson. Leicester: Penalties Flood 5
Toulon: D Armitage; R Wulf, M Bastareaud (M Mermoz 79). M Giteau, A Palisson (V Martin 68); J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous-Borde; A Sheridan (G Jenkins 58), S Bruno (M Ivaldi 56). C Hayman, B Botha, N Kennedy, J-M Fernandez-Lobbe, S Armitage (J Van Niekerk 74), C Masoe.
Leicester: M Tait; N Morris, M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Thompstone (M Castrogiovanni 67); T Flood (capt), B Youngs; M Ayerza (L Mulipola 54), T Youngs, D Cole, E Slater (G Kitchener 65), G Parling, T Croft (T Waldrom 39), J Salvi, J Crane.
Referee: G Clancy (Ireland)