Legends Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O'Driscoll face up to last chance of Euro glory
Published 06/04/2014 | 11:21
Whatever Jonny Wilkinson and Brian O'Driscoll do after their retirements from playing this summer, they know nothing will replace the adrenaline rush of "do or die games", as Wilkinson described this afternoon's Heineken Cup quarter-final between Toulon and Leinster in the south of France.
As the home club's chant of "Pilou, Pilou" reverberates from the harbourside Stade Mayol to the Alpine outcrop of the Massif des Maures and back again, both the celebrated England fly-half and the eminent Ireland centre will know that defeat will end their long career in European competitions.
Neither man has said much yet about the future. Wilkinson may stay in Toulon to tutor their goal-kickers, although he has a part-time role as a 2015 World Cup ambassador to take care of.
O'Driscoll may become a house-husband to his actress wife Amy Huberman in the short term; he has been tipped equally as a coach or media pundit in the longer run.
Heineken Cup-wise, O'Driscoll is the master: his 86 Heineken Cup appearances and 33 tries are far superior to the 27 matches and one try on Wilkinson's CV, largely due to the latter's formative years being spent with the down-at-heel Newcastle Falcons. But Wilkinson is the man playing for the cup holders today. Toulon won the final against Clermont Auvergne last season; coincidentally, in Dublin.
The Leinster No 8 Jamie Heaslip – who, together with the currently injured flanker Sean O'Brien, turned down transfer bids from Toulon in recent months, grudgingly witnessed the excited crowds from his then house in Ringsend, not far from the Aviva Stadium. "It did make me a little bit jealous," Heaslip said, even though, like O'Driscoll, he is a three-time Heineken winner.
O'Driscoll is credited by Bernard Jackman, the former Leinster and Ireland hooker who is now head at Grenoble in the French Top 14, with a major role in Leinster overhauling Ireland's original European trailblazers, Munster.
"When we turned things around, finishing top of the Magners League in 2008 and winning the Heineken Cup in 2009, it was because of him," Jackman told Rugby World magazine. "He refused to accept shoddy standards, and turned us from a spineless set-up into a better team."
More recently, the Leinster head coach, Matt O'Connor, was an assistant with Leinster when they lost 21-15 at Toulon in last season's quarter-finals. Leinster's pair of international front-rows, allied to the quietly heroic Devin Toner's line-out capability, gives them reason to believe they can hold their hosts in the set-piece. But though Toulon are replete with superstars aged in their 30s who eschew the lavish touches, not even Clermont, a team packed with devastating runners, could hold them at bay in the 2013 final.
It is not just O'Driscoll and Wilkinson retiring; Leo Cullen, Leinster's substitute second-row and former captain, will join the coaching staff this summer. Cullen has visited the Waratahs, Chiefs and Crusaders in recent weeks to take tips from Antipodean luminaries.
"Toulon have got some big units all right, and bigger guys can potentially tire," said Cullen. "[But] if you've got to tackle big guys for a long period of time, it's going to tire you as well." And someone will have to forego the fairytale finish? "Fairytales are not the business we are in," said Cullen. "It is pretty cruel."
Both today's teams lie second in their respective leagues. Jimmy Gopperth, once of Newcastle, has got the nod over Ian Madigan at fly-half for Leinster, to go head to head with old Golden Oval Balls. "The key at this stage of the season is to stay alive and in amongst it all," said Wilkinson. "If we want to win we've got to fight for it."