The only realistic way of winning a major knock-out tie against opponents armed with the finest marksman in the history of the union game is to keep a very strict limit on penalty offences. Saracens tried to do it the other way yesterday – whistled 14 times by the Irish referee Alain Rolland, they presented Jonny Wilkinson with seven shots at goal in the process – and sure enough, they paid through the nose for their folly. For the sixth successive season, there will be no English name on the Heineken Cup.
Not that Mark McCall, the Londoners' rugby director, saw things in this light. Indeed, he took a very dim view of the officiating that gave Jonny-boy and company a leg-up towards joining Clermont Auvergne in an all-French final. "It will be interesting to find out how many of the penalties out there were awarded against the attacking team – the team in possession of the ball, the team trying to be positive," he said, sharply. "I don't have the stats to hand, but it seemed to me that it was a lot."
McCall was not a million miles off the mark – Rolland's masterclass in tackle-area pedantry did not help Saracens, any more than it helped create a sense of occasion at a cavernous Twickenham that was two-thirds empty – but even he could not argue with the quality of Wilkinson's contribution.
Asked if he thought Toulon could possibly win next month's final against a side as dynamic and multi-skilled as Clermont, he replied: "Clermont are the ones with Heineken Cup experience, but it's hard to bet against a team with Wilkinson in the side."
His opposite number, the former France national coach Bernard Laporte, was predictably overjoyed by the English outside-half's faultless display from the kicking tee, "Great players win great matches," he remarked. This was stretching a point: Wilkinson may or may not be a genuine "great", depending on your definition of greatness at No 10, but the game was anything but. Not that anyone was in the mood to be churlish. If he never plays at Twickenham again, Wilkinson's exit from HQ was as deeply satisfying in every respect.
Talking of his match-winning drop goal seven minutes from time, he was characteristically unwilling to big himself up.
"I apologised to Owen Farrell," he said. "He did a great job out there for Saracens and maybe didn't deserve what happened. I told him: 'I think I got lucky there.' I hit the ball, not really knowing where it was going. I thought it would drift past the post, but it just crept in.
"It's great to come out on top against a team like Saracens. It's a big moment for us. The game didn't go fantastically well – we failed to do a lot of the things we wanted to do – but it was a semi-final and it was all about fighting hard and hanging on to the bitter end. What got us through? Spirit and determination."
Those are qualities more frequently associated with Wilkinson than with a team of "mercenaries" like Toulon, but on yesterday's evidence, the richest club in France have discovered that wealth can be measured in something other than euros.
In a tight game, they stared down a Saracens side who pride themselves on their unity, their collective sense of purpose – something that could only have been achieved by a side as rich in character as in pocket.
If Wilkinson's stare was more intense than anyone's, his colleagues have learnt to play in his image. Sometimes, he really does seem too good to be true.
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