Monday 23 October 2017

Wilkinson planning to end career in style – with a little help from Toulon giants

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE Grim Reaper is due into Cardiff at around 7.0 tonight, ready to commit the Heineken Cup to its final resting place.

The Millennium Stadium will act as its coffin and the players of Saracens and Toulon the pallbearers. Those involved will be too invested in the cup's final resting place to consider any sense of mourning, but from this side of the Irish Sea, there will be tears at the demise of something so central to the rise of rugby in this country.

Saracens being in the final is akin to Brutus and pals acting as chief mourners at Caesar's burial. A win for Mark McCall's side would act as a fittingly bleak farewell.

It is nothing against the Ulster man or, indeed, his impressively assembled team. Instead, it is the institution they represent with their 'Wolfpack' defence, silly songs and piped-in atmosphere that make them hard to like.

Over the water, the paeans continue to be written for Jonny Wilkinson, who, for one last time, goes up against his anointed successor in his penultimate game, the final one to be played on British soil.

We cannot be churlish about celebrating the passing of a legend into retirement, we've been doing it all season, but the metronomic fly-half whose professionalism, goal kicking and tackling are cited as his greatest strengths, is not everybody's cup of tea. There is no doubting his credentials as a match-winner, however.

The champions stand in Sarries' way of a first European title, but there is a sense of momentum behind the English team, who boast a scarily good defence. Momentum courses through the side, who benefited from having the very teams their owners wanted to get rid of from the tournament – Connacht and Zebre – in their pool, before riding their luck at Ravenhill where 14-men Ulster almost beat them.

In destroying Clermont, they staked a real claim to being a team with destiny on its side and after being steamrolled by Toulouse twice in the pool stages, they look less susceptible to the Toulon power game.

That said, the French side possess a frightening array of quality weapons in their armoury.

Those who remain from last year will remember the almost inglorious way they won it, outlasting a Clermont side who played all the rugby in Dublin before running out of steam.

Having won it once, they'll want to win it better this time, but the prospect of the Top 14 final next week is another potential distraction – albeit one they share with Sarries, who also have domestic business to take care before season's end.

Leinster found the relentless power of Matieu Bastareaud and Steffon Armitage too much to handle, while Munster were left clinging on to a barely fit Bryan Habana's coat-tails at times. Saracens, however, look better set up to cope with all of that straight-line ball-carrying.

The Vunipola brothers will be expected to take the game to the champions, but Steve Borthwick's inclusion looks a risk after his recent injury travails. Against Danie Rossouw and Bakkies Botha, who have Ali Williams and Jocelina Suta in reserve, the line-out and close quarters could be edged by the French pack. Toulon will hope to get a foothold there and unleash their big men around the corner.

Sarries, meanwhile, need the suspect temperament of Owen Farrell to hold it together if they are to find their way. The England fly-half is talented, but prone to cerebral malfunctions at critical moments.

With Ireland, England and France sharing the Heineken Cup honours at six-a-piece, the winner will tip the balance in the all-time stakes.

Saracens have addressed most of their previous failings on the road to this point and whether they have improved enough to address their failings of last year's semi-final remains to be seen.

The scene is set, the new guard are ready to celebrate the rebirth of European rugby in their image from next year on with a final that promises to be bruising, direct and settled by a drop-goal.

The Heineken Cup era is almost over. Enjoy it while you can. Enjoy it if you can.

Verdict: Toulon

RC TOULON – D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous-Borde; X Chiocci, C Burden, C Hayman; B Botha, D Rossouw; J Smith, J Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage. Reps: JC Orioli, A Menini, M Castrogiovanni, A Williams, V Bruni, M Mermoz, M Claassens, J Suta.

SARACENS – A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, S Brits, MStevens; S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves; K Brown, J Burger, B Vunipola. Reps: J George, R Barrington, J Johnston, M Botha, J Wray, N de Kock, C Hodgson, C Wyles

REF: Alain Rolland (IRFU)

Toulon v Saracens,

Live, Sky Sports 2, 5.0.

Irish Independent

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