Jonny Wilkinson's dream of experiencing a French Championship final was shattered in one of the greatest games in years. Clermont Auvergne, who have been to 10 finals and have 10 times been beaten, stopped Toulon's comeback in a pulsating semi-final which went to extra time.
Wilkinson appeared to have done enough to send Toulon to Paris but up popped an Australian, the Clermont fly-half Brock James, to exact revenge for that famous World Cup winning drop-goal seven years ago and punish Wilkinson for a clearance kick which missed touch. James smashed over the drop goal from 51 metres. Moments later, the wing Julien Malzieu's kick and chase try from 65m sealed Clermont's place in an 11th final.
It was a wondrous, memorable, rip-roaring match which held a big crowd spellbound. In the end, not even Wilkinson could turn the tide Toulon's way. They were heartbroken. Not even conditions brought from Newcastle in December could help and Clermont will meet Perpignan, the champions who beat Toulouse in the other semi-final in Montpellier on Friday night, at the Stade de France on Saturday week.
We saw just about the complete gamut of individual achievements from Wilkinson, who finished the first 80 minutes with a typical, soaring penalty from halfway to send the match into extra time. There were shades of the 2003 World Cup final, true, but the big difference was, this time his heroics were not enough.
Wilkinson began with a routine penalty after two minutes after the Clermont captain, Aurélien Rougerie, had got himself offside at a ruck. This was candy for a kid, a pleasing introduction to the hurly-burly of a French semi-final. A drop-goal out of nothing, from 40 metres, followed after 13 minutes.
By the time 80 minutes were up, the Englishman had kicked three more penalties and the conversion of a 73rd-minute try by the New Zealander Sonny Bill Williams which revived Toulon from a 22-12 deficit. Wilkinson's difficult conversion and that thumping penalty three minutes later which tied the scores and sent the game into extra time were precision acts from an ice-cool operator.
Unfortunately for Wilkinson, he didn't have the goal-kicking glory all to himself. By the time these two fiercely ambitious sides had bashed themselves almost to a standstill, in the 80th minute, France's Grand Slam scrum-half, Morgan Parra, had kicked four penalties and converted a try by the Clermont replacement prop Davit Zirakashvili. Earlier, the full-back Anthony Floch had dropped a goal.
Both sides were close to exhaustion in extra time. It was Clermont who somehow dragged themselves over the finish line.
Toulon L Rooney (F Contepomi, 40); G Lovobalavu, M Kefu, S Williams, T Umaga (F Auelua, 71); J Wilkinson, P Mignoni (F Cibray, 72); L Emmanuelli (S Taumoepeau, 51), S Bruno (P Fitzgerald, 66), D Kubriashvili, K Chesney (R Skeate, 57), J Suta, J van Niekerk (capt), J El Abd (O Missoup, 38-40; 53) JM Fernandez Lobbe.
Clermont Auvergne A Floch; N Nalaga, A Rougerie (capt), M Joubert (G Canale, 70), J Malzieu; B James, M Parra (K Senio, 74); T Domingo (L Faure, 68), M Ledesma, M Scelzo (D Zirakashvili, 40), J Cudmore, T Privat (J Pierre, 58), J Bonnaire, E Vermeulen, A Lapandry (A Audebert, 66).
Referee J Garces (France).Reuse content