Imperious Toulon claim last Heineken Cup crown as Jonny Wilkinson bows out a winner
RC TOULON 23 SARACENS 6
THE last Heineken Cup will not live long in the memory as the 19-year-old tournament signed off with a bitter, bad-tempered Anglo-French affair that quite neatly summed up a season dominated by off-field politicking.
The cup remains in Toulon as Bernard Laporte’s men crushed Saracens beneath the closed roof in Cardiff.
A rare flash of brilliance amid relentless power from the mercurial Matt Giteau and a well-worked Juan Smith try enlightened a turgid afternoon’s rugby to give the champions an edge they would not cede with Jonny Wilkinson signing off a two-time winner.
The French side are undoubtedly the top team in Europe now, having followed up last year’s somewhat smash and grab victory over Clermont in Dublin with an altogether more dominant win.
They join Leinster and Leicester Tigers as the only teams to retain the trophy, while they also gained entry to the elite club of multiple winners. Despite the impending loss of Jonny Wilkinson, few would bet against them achieving three in a row in the Rugby Champions Cup next season.
Played out in front of a largely neutral crowd, with a huge number of Irish fans in attendance, the atmosphere at the usually febrile stadium strangely muted as the small pockets of partisan fans barely heard above the din of chattering neutrals.
Ireland’s one representative on the pitch, the retiring Alain Rolland, did not have his best day on his final outing, presiding over a stop-start affair and falling into the modern trap of video reliance too often.
Much of the intermittent pauses came at the scrum time where Matt Stevens had Xavier Chiocci in all sorts of difficulty as Toulon started slowly and Owen Farrell kicked his side into an early 3-0 lead.
The England fly-half couldn’t further the advantage, however, despite being presented with two more kicks at goal and trying a drop-goal before Giteau finally brought some class to an otherwise turgid afternoon of big hits and breaks in play.
Despite being down to 14-men after Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe’s yellow card for taking Alistair Hargreaves out in the air, Toulon kept pressing and, after strong carries by Danie Rossouw and Steffon Armitage set up field position, Wilkinson moved the ball on to the blindside where the Australian centre, standing static, had no option but to chip over the top.
The bounce fell kindly to Drew Mitchell who rode Alex Goode’s tackle to feed Giteau who had followed his kick to crash over.
Wilkinson converted and suddenly the champions were in complete control, with Craig Burden and Rossouw putting in shuddering hits to ensure the English side could not generate momentum as Wilkinson kicked a trademark drop-goal to give his side a seven point lead at the break.
The English fly-halves exchanged penalties as Toulon replaced their entire front-five within 20 minutes of half-time and began to take a stranglehold on the breakdown with man of the match Steffon Armitage and Fernandez Lobbe dominating the tackle area.
With so much surrounding Wilkinson’s meeting with Farrell, it was fitting that the decisive moment came from the duo’s encounter on 59 minutes.
Wilkinson saw Farrell race out of the defensive line and took the hit, but by the time the tackle came the ball had been moved on to Mitchell who evaded Strettle’s tackle to put Mathieu Bastareaud into space.
The big man took full advantage, drawing Neil de Kock before feeding Juan Smith who played a neat one-two with Fernandez-Lobbe to score in the corner.
It was fairy tale stuff for the Springbok who was forced to retire from the game last season but was coaxed back to play with Toulon and it was followed by the man of the hour Wilkinson converting before adding a penalty after Farrell’s late hit on Bryan Habana.
With a 17 point cushion, the men who ended Leinster and Munster’s hopes were never going to be caught and they happily plugged the corners as their impressive bench closed out the deal without adding to their total.
Wilkinson was withdrawn to a standing ovation before the end with next week’s Top 14 final in mind, but before his thoughts could turn to that final game there was a trophy to be lifted.
That an all-time great was the last player to lift the trophy was fitting despite the poor final.
Toulon reign supreme once again and their dominance could last for some time yet.
RC TOULON -- D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana; J Wilkinson (capt) (M Mermoz 78), S Tillous-Borde (M Claasens 71); X Chiocci (A Menini 46), C Burden (JC Orioli h-t), C Hayman (M Castrogiovanni 57); B Botha (A Williams 52), D Rossouw (J Suta 52); J Smith (V Bruni 72), J Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage.
SARACENS – A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell (C Hodgson 64), R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 52); M Vunipola (R Barrington 64), S Brits (J George 70), M Stevens; S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (M Botha 64); K Brown, J Burger (J Wray 60), B Vunipola. Referee: Alain Rolland (IRFU)
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)