Saturday 24 March 2018

Wilkinson bows out of Europe with perfect finale

Toulon 23 Saracens 6

Paul Rees at the Millennium Stadium

Jonny Wilkinson's final appearance on a rugby ground in Britain ended with the outside-half becoming the last captain to hoist the Heineken Cup after another polished performance that should give his successor at No 10 in the England team, Owen Farrell, considerable pause for thought.

The game was an hour old when Wilkinson, who had dropped a trademark goal with his right foot at the end of the first half to give his side a 10-3 interval lead despite being largely outplayed until then, was going through his routine as he prepared to convert Toulon's second try. Farrell, standing behind the Saracens' line, pointed to where his watch would normally be on his wrist and mouthed some advice.

A few minutes later, after a high and late tackle on Bryan Habana had led to Wilkinson's second penalty and 13th point of the evening, a flustered Farrell was taken off. If the performances of the two outhalves did not decide the result of the match, Wilkinson showed that being compared to him is one thing, but being comparable to him is another.

Saracens started in wolf-pack mode. After Owen Farrell gave the Premiership finalists a fourth minute lead when Xavier Chiocci, not for the first time, buckled under the pressure exerted by Matt Stevens at a scrum, the defending champions enjoyed a period of pressure, picking and going nowhere.

Toulon knew what to expect but were still discombobulated. Their first attack ended when Steffon Armitage was penalised near the Saracens' line for holding on. Toulon were struggling up front: the hooker Craig Burden made a series of borderline challenges, on one occasion leaving his opposite number Schalk Brits prostrate, and Delon Armitage was fortunate his late challenge on Alex Goode was neither seen by the match officials nor investigated by the fourth official. It was brutal stuff and generally ugly.

Richard Wigglesworth's hanging kicks disconcerted Toulon after the scrum-half recovered from a shaky opening when he found touch on the full before being charged down by Burden near his own line, fortunate the ball bounced towards touch-in-goal rather than away from it as Sebastien Tillous-Borde went to touch it down. Sarries chased hard, as they had at the start of the match when Chris Ashton's looming presence prompted Juan Fernandez Lobbe to drop the kick-off in his own 22 – but while they forced errors they also made them and they failed to exploit a one-man advantage for 10 minutes in the third quarter.

Farrell's penalty miss came after Lobbe had received a yellow card for taking out Alistair Hargreaves in the air. Toulon had been on the back foot that it was 24 minutes before Bryan Habana touched the ball, and then it was to stop it going into touch in his own 22.

Just after that, Toulon were awarded their first penalty and when the second followed, Wilkinson changed direction after the lineout ball was moved quickly and Matt Giteau, whose role until then had been that of a tacklebag, chipped the ball into the Saracens' 22 for the right-wing Drew Mitchell to chase.

Alex Goode was exposed at full-back as Mitchell caught the bouncing ball and although he made a try-saving tackle, Giteau had sensed an opportunity, sprinting to support his compatriot while Mathieu Bastareaud dawdled, and Wigglesworth was too far behind to prevent a try against the run of play.

Toulon's second, decisive try, 19 minutes into the second-half, came from another Saracens mistake. Farrell had not been reluctant to attack the line and another half-break inside opposition territory created some space for Ashton, who had come into midfield.

The wing was unable to hold onto the pass and the Top 14 finalists counterattacked, moving the ball right where Bastareaud deceived the defence into thinking he was going to take contact, instead making a disguised pass to Juan Smith outside him.

Smith passed to Lobbe inside him on the Saracens 22 and when Goode committed himself to the tackle, the two wing forwards combined again for Smith to score in the corner. Saracens had scored first in the second half when Farrell kicked his second penalty after Chiocci had again been penalised for taking down a scrum: the prop was immediately hauled off given the referee Alain Rolland's penchant for giving collapsers 10 minutes in the sin-bin to reflect on their technique.

Wilkinson added a penalty from 40 metres and the game had moved away from Saracens. The wolves scattered and Wilkinson, who left the field two minutes from the end trying to avoid a standing ovation, will on Saturday look to end his career with a double.


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