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Saturday 19 April 2014

This triumph beats World Cup - Wilkinson

Former England star leaves Lions door open after Toulon ambush Clermont in Aviva epic Toulon 16 Clermont 15 Heineken Cup Final

Toulon players celebrate with the Heineken Cup

TOULON dashed the cup of victory from desperately seeking Clermont Auvergne lips on Saturday in an achievement their captain Jonny Wilkinson suggested even surpassed his 2003 World Cup victory with England.

To this day, Wilkinson is feted for his drop-goal in that final against Australia. It was therefore ironic that Clermont's last chance to rescue Saturday's final was snatched from them when Mathieu Bastareaud blocked David Skrela's attempted drop-goal in the closing minutes.

"Mathieu was beside me for that drop-goal," recalled Wilkinson. "To be honest, it was a 'close your eyes and hope for the best' moment for me. I heard the sound of his (Skrela's) boot connecting with the ball and to me he caught it very well. It was certainly going over or near to it.

Surprising

"I was beside Mathieu when he started sprinting and it was fantastic to see him block the kick."

The most surprising aspect of the game – apart from Clermont losing a match they surely won everywhere but on the scoreboard – was how highly Wilkinson rated the win.

"As an achievement it's right up there (with the World Cup)," he said. "In fact, it sort of goes beyond it because this is in the now and the World Cup is in the past. You live in the now, not the past.

"For me, this is hugely important. You always question yourself about whether or not you are still contributing, whether or not you can 'cut it'. Moments like this give you the chance to look at things and be happy with what you've done. I'm delighted."

At the risk of devaluing Toulon's achievement at winning their first Heineken Cup title, this was a match Clermont should have won for they were the more exciting and better team. They played all the rugby but were dealt a cruel blow when losing to a pragmatic and opportunistic Toulon side.

In truth, a little bit of the romance associated with the Heineken Cup died on Saturday.

This final will not be remembered for some of the magnificent rugby played by Clermont, or for the superb individual try that wasn't scored by their out-half Brock James before half-time when he chased his own chip and outpaced Juan Fernandez-Lobbe and Chris Masoe.

Instead, the abiding memory is of Toulon's full-back Delon Armitage waving in a derisory manner at James as he crossed the line for the game's decisive score after 64 minutes. It was a bit of outrageous gamesmanship that devalued the occasion.

But even more frustrating was the feeling that this game was one lost by Clermont rather than won by Toulon. Had Clermont kept their composure, or had replacement Skrela approached his drop-goal attempt with a scintilla of confidence, the cup would be Clermont's.

As a contest it was as physical as a tornado. In a three-minute spell, as the game ticked into the second quarter, there were a series of hits – beginning with a fractionally late tackle by Toulon's Bakkies Botha on Nathan Hines – that almost made the eyes water.

Certainly the crowd winced in sympathy as the Australian native and former Scotland international was driven back and into the sod.

Next up, his captain Aurelien Rougerie felt the considerable power of his opposite number, the man-beast that is France international Bastareaud. It was primal stuff that was violent in the extreme.

But still Clermont's class was evident throughout. James was running the line with authority and had wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga, and centre Wesley Fofana, running fabulously clever lines off him as they threatened to blow Toulon aside.

Where Toulon deserve credit is for the manner in which they doggedly hung in during the contest despite having just 32pc possession and barely 22pc territory over the 80 minutes.

In this endeavour the control of Wilkinson was absolutely key. He had shaky moments in the first half when the game seemed to pass him by. This was especially the case when Rougerie obviously targeted his channel for strong carries.

Class inevitably outs, however, and he weathered the storm to provide Toulon with direction and leadership when most needed in the third and fourth quarters as they turned the screw on a Clermont side that were clearly wilting under the pressure.

It is a disservice to the performance of, in particular, Sivivatu that Clermont are not European champions. The truth is that the cliche of their being mentally brittle when the pressure arrives came to the fore.

Clermont enjoyed a commanding 15-6 lead and all they needed to do to win was exert control, be disciplined and close out the game.

The memory of all those Top 14 final losses came back to haunt them and they stumbled. James, for example, seemed to disappear as the game progressed, as did Morgan Parra and their back-row as Toulon's brutality and direct approach began to yield precious dividend.

Wilkinson kicked the corners and bossed them around the pitch with his range of kicks, and cracks suddenly began to appear in the Clermont set-up.

Culprit

Parra was the unlikely culprit when his enthusiasm got the better of him and he foolishly kicked quickly. What was needed during that particular phase was a cooler head but the scrum-half succumbed to the rush of blood.

The ball bobbled around on the deck but, before the Clermont forwards could seal it off, Fernandez-Lobbe stole and fed Armitage who charged clear to cross the line. Wilkinson converted and Toulon took the lead they were never likely to relinquish.

Skrela did have that chance at the death to rescue the game and become the hero but, as the Clermont pack chiselled out the platform for him, the replacement out-half never gave the impression he wanted the responsibility and it wasn't a huge surprise when his attempt was blocked.

Wilkinson and his Toulon team-mates dropped to their knees in delight at the final whistle. For Clermont, there was only despair.

And as night follows day the inevitable question about the Lions tour reared its head as soon as the Toulon captain appeared post-match.

"It's clearcut in my mind. The situation is that I had a conversation with Warren Gatland and, at this stage of my career, this (Toulon) is me," he said.

"We have possibly two more games – definitely one – left this season and I need to put everything I have into the club. I need to be at 100pc just to survive and that's what I'm focused on totally."

He did, however, concede a little at the end with a "never say never".

Clermont Auvergne – L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt; R King 69), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James (D Skrela 73), M Parra (L Radosavlejic 74); T Domingo (V Debaty 66), B Kayser (T Paulo 66), D Zirakashvilli (C Ric 74), J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire, D Chouly, G Vosloo (J Bardy 69).

Toulon – D Armitage; R Wolf, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, A Palisson; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous-Borde (F Michalak 52); A Sheridan (G Jenkins 62), S Bruno (JC Orioloi 53), C Hayman (D Kubriashvilli 77), B Botha (J Suta 69), N Kennedy, D Roussouw (J van Niekerk 52), C Masoe (S Armitage 69), JM Fernandez-Lobbe.

Ref – A Rolland (Ire)

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