Saracens find no answer to wizardly Jonny Wilkinson
Saracens 12 Toulon 24
Same as it ever was. Jonny Wilkinson's approach to the outside-half's art may not be as captivating as Barry John's or as complete as Daniel Carter's – he is, in some senses, a small piece of a No 10 unnaturally developed – but the parts of his game that work best are on the supreme side of brilliant. The most celebrated player of his generation guided Toulon to their first Heineken Cup final yesterday with a 24-point haul, three of which came from a drop goal that may just have been better than the one he landed on World Cup-winning night a decade ago.
Yes, the famous drop for England against Australia in Sydney was off his weaker right foot and was executed in testing weather conditions under the most extreme pressure imaginable. But this one, off his left peg on a decent track, had its own challenges – most notably the proximity of the ultra-aggressive Owen Farrell, who closed in on his opposite number with hostile intent just as Wilkinson shaped to kick and clattered him the moment he made contact with the ball. Under the circumstances, the delivery was nothing short of miraculous.
In one of the more theatrically memorable moments of this European campaign, or perhaps any other, Farrell, who had landed on top of his forerunner as England's playmaker in chief, peered back at the posts, saw the low-flying ball clear the bar and sank, disbelieving, into his rival's arms.
Wilkinson's response? A pat on the back so honest and so touching in its sympathy that it reinforced everything we thought we knew about the man. He is a competitor in the classical sense: utterly implacable, yet wholly generous and fair-minded.
So much so that when the predictable question was asked in the immediate aftermath of the game – might he, at the very last minute and after all he had said to the contrary, be up for one last shot at Lions glory in Australia this summer? – he continued to push the claims of others. "I'm digging in with my fingernails these days," he said. "There are young players out there: people like Owen and Toby Flood in England, Dan Biggar in Wales, Jonathan Sexton in Ireland. This is their era. I want those guys to experience the forthcoming tour because they deserve it."
All the same, the Lions hierarchy looking down on events from the posh seats above the old cabbage patch must be pondering the whys and wherefores as they piece together their squad ahead of tomorrow's formal announcement.
Wilkinson's masterly intervention came 73 minutes into a semi-final that had offered plenty of muscularity but precious little in the way of invention or exhilaration.
Toulon were 18-12 up and had both eyes on the countdown clock: while they had won most of the battles that mattered and bossed things at scrum and breakdown, their outsized forwards were blowing hard and decelerating by the second. They knew that if the Saracens full-back Alex Goode, by some distance the most creative player on view, could just find a way of freeing Chris Ashton or Joel Tomkins down a wide channel, their lead could be wiped out in a trice. The drop goal put paid to that, ruthlessly and decisively.
Indeed, Wilkinson went on to add an eighth successful kick with a left-sided penalty after the Londoners, now lost in a mist of deflation and desperation, fumbled the ball in midfield and put themselves offside.
Saracens were by no means 12 points worse than their opponents but sometimes in rugby there is an extra force at work.
Before kick-off, the talk had been about the geography of the game: about whether Farrell could match Wilkinson in navigating his team around the field and giving them a territorial advantage. In the event, it was more about the geology of the game than the geography. Toulon arrived with a huge amount of physical ballast and had rocks of every type – igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic – in their forward pack. When the earth cracked and moved, it was the French side who did the cracking and the English one who were forced to move.
Mako Vunipola, the young loose-head prop who many felt was performing a Lions audition, had some mighty moments in broken field, but he was tested to the limit and beyond when it came to the set-piece duties. Another fast-tracked Saracens forward, the flanker Jackson Wray, suffered similarly: there were some excellent touches here and there, but whenever he entered Danie Rossouw's unforgiving orbit, the Springbok threw him around like a rag doll.
Indeed, a Saracens side cruelly shorn of the red-hot breakaway forward Will Fraser barely began to fathom a way of nullifying the visitors' polyglot loose combination, which also featured the Argentinian maestro Juan Fernandez Lobbe and the All Black recruit Chris Masoe. Fernandez Lobbe triumphed in the aerial exchanges while Masoe's tackling around the fringes repeatedly snuffed out potential danger at source. With Rossouw's strong-arm work providing a dark and occasionally disturbing dimension, Toulon dominated the collisions.
Only once did Saracens seriously threaten to break down the barricades.
Six points adrift shortly after the interval, they saw the back of Rossouw for 10 precious minutes after the South African hit Vunipola with a high tackle for the second time.
Suddenly, the men from the Premiership were in the ascendant: Farrell closed the gap to three by landing the resulting penalty and when Vunipola broke free and stampeded towards the Toulon line, it looked for all the world as though a game-breaking try would be theirs. Sadly for them, Farrell threw a forward pass to Kelly Brown with the line at the Scotsman's mercy.
Four minutes later, the excellent Masoe stopped the overmatched Wray dead in his tracks and forced the youngster into a penalty concession. Wilkinson tried his luck from 52 metres, bisected the sticks with his customary precision and restored the six-point margin.
Saracens must have suspected then that the game was up. After the drop goal, there was no room left for doubt.
Scorers: Saracens: Penalties Farrell 4. Toulon: Penalties Wilkinson 7; Drop goal Wilkinson.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, J Tomkins, B Barritt (C Hodgson, 53), D Strettle (C Wyles, 44); O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock, 50); M Vunipola (R Gill, 6-12 and 68), S Brits (J Smit, 63), M Stevens (C Nieto, 68), S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (M Botha, 68), J Wray, K Brown, E Joubert (G Kruis, 48).
Toulon: D Armitage; R Wulf, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, A Palisson; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous-Borde; A Sheridan (G Jenkins, 60), S Bruno (J-C Orioli, 51), C Hayman (D Kubriashvili, 77), B Botha, N Kennedy (J Suta, 56), D Rossouw (S Armitage, 65, M Mermoz, 77), J M Fernandez Lobbe, C Masoe (J Van Niekerk, 70).
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).
HEINEKEN CUP FINAL
Clermont Auvergne v Toulon
Saturday 18 May Aviva Stadium, Dublin, 5pm
TERRIFIC TOULON: MATCH IN STATS
40: Wins in the 46 matches Wilkinson has played at Twickenham
97: Points scored by Jonny Wilkinson in this season's competition
2010: The last French side to win the cup was Toulouse, three years ago. Next month's match will be the fourth all-French final
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