Jonny Wilkinson keeps a door open to late call-up to the British and Irish Lions
Flawless display of kicking from England legend leads Toulon to maiden Heineken Cup
Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, has never made it clear what role he had in mind for Jonny Wilkinson when he rang to check the fly-half's availability for this summer's tour just before the squad was announced last month.
Possible starter in the first Test? Impact substitute to drop a goal in the last minute? Chief meditation officer, spreading calm amid the panic?
All we learned in Dublin on Saturday as Wilkinson and Toulon carried off the Heineken Cup by beating Clermont Auvergne 16-15 was that the game's most talked about No 10 still has a kicking left foot in cracking working order – he scored three penalties and the crucial conversion – though some other parts of his game would need careful looking after.
Wilkinson, now 34, was last night named European Player of the Year for his hand in the win. He has said all season he feels it is time for younger players to tour – the fly-halves in the Lions squad are Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell – and that Toulon's business comes first, which by the way must have been what Gatland expected to hear when he made that call.
The matter may become clearer in the next day or two; not least because Toulon are staying in Dublin until Wednesday before returning to France for Friday's Top 14 semi-final with Toulouse in Nantes. And Gatland and the 29 Lions not busy with their clubs are training nearby in Kildare.
Wilkinson, who was said by Gatland possibly to need a post-season operation, was flanked by Bernard Laporte, the Toulon head coach, and the enormous centre Mathieu Bastareaud when he said: "It's fairly clear cut in my head. These games... I need to be 100 per cent in there just to survive. So it's difficult to think about anything else other than to say we've got possibly two more games, definitely one."
Did that amount to a case of never saying never, leaving the door open to joining the Lions tour party late? "Yeah exactly but at the same time everything I've got is going towards these guys and this club," the Toulon captain said.
Delon Armitage, the full-back whose try in the final quarter helped Toulon to a first European title, and who was one of five England internationals in the winning team, gave Wilkinson more of a thumbs-up afterwards than when he had been grumbling at him for kicking out instead of passing for a counter attack a few minutes before the score.
"I'm sure there'll be that call-up to the Lions," Armitage said. "I hope he does because he's the best 10 in Europe, if not the world, at the minute." Armitage, having been riled by Clermont triumphalism when they were leading 15-6, taunted the opposing fly-half Brock James with a wave when he finished off a turnover conceded by Wesley Fofana and brilliantly exploited by Juan Fernandez Lobbe stepping over a ruck.
Armitage was criticised by ex-players on Twitter and replied yesterday with a crude message to Brian Moore. On and off the field, this Toulon squad is a mixed bunch.
James and initially Napolioni Nalaga had scored tries of beauty and panache for Clermont early in the second half – Wilkinson was dismissively brushed aside by Aurélien Rougerie in the chase for James's score – but to no avail. Now, Clermont face Castres in the other Top 14 semi-final on Saturday. If Clermont come back to win the title, their sense of satisfaction may be greater than Toulon's.
But as Wilkinson, the some-time student of Buddhism, put it, "This game is all about the now" and two Frenchmen endured conflicting feelings. Toulon's replacement scrum-half Freddy Michalak made the quick-smart punt upfield that led to Wilkinson's' third penalty and a crucial cut in Clermont's lead to 15-9 on 60 minutes.
And pity poor David Skrela, who was given five minutes here to try for a winning dropped goal. A fractional adjustment as he collected a pass in the pocket from Ludovic Radosavljevic allowed Bastareaud to charge him down.
Wilkinson, once so fragile, has made 102 starts for Toulon in four seasons in the south of France. His sense of timing may have gone bust in the years he spent injured after the 2003 World Cup win, but he has converted 17 place kicks out of 17 in Europe's knockout stages this season and has signed with Toulon for one more year.
"Jonny practises so hard, he deserves everything," said Nick Kennedy, Toulon's England lock. "We are so grateful to him as a team because when we are at home sitting on our arses, he is out there kicking, working for moments like that. He should have won a lot more silverware but he is a loyal man. He was loyal to Newcastle, who were usually at the other end of the Premiership."
Wilkinson had left it late after just a single Heineken Cup quarter-final in his career to date, but his beaming smile was the motif of Dublin 2013.
Clermont Auvergne: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt, R King 68), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James (D Skrela 73), M Parra (L Radoslavjevic 71); T Domingo (V Debaty 66), B Kayser (T Paulo 66), D Zirakashvili (C Ric 73), J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire, G Vosloo (J Bardy 68), D Chouly.
Toulon: D Armitage, A Palisson, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, R Wulf; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous-Borde (F Michalak 51); A Sheridan (G Jenkins 61), S Bruno (J-C Orioli 51), C Hayman, B Botha (J Suta 68), N Kennedy, D Rossouw (J van Niekerk 51), J Fernandez Lobbe, C Masoe (S Armitage 68).
Top points scorers this season, from leagues and European competitions:
Jonny Wilkinson Toulon 463
Nick Evans Harlequins 331
Rory Kockott Castres 326
James Hook Perpignan 315
Freddie Burns Gloucester 250
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