Sport Champions Cup

Sunday 21 January 2018

Wilkinson the soul and conscience of French high-rollers

Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson and his wife Shelley following his side's victory. Heineken Cup Final, Toulon v Saracens. Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales
Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson and his wife Shelley following his side's victory. Heineken Cup Final, Toulon v Saracens. Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales

Mick Cleary

ONE last lingering walk, one last self-conscious wave, and Jonny Wilkinson disappeared from sight for the final time on active duty on British soil – proof that money can buy a man's labour but that it takes something else entirely to capture his soul.

With Wilkinson it has never been about financial gain, never about bottom lines. The only line that interests him is the one drawn between his gimlet-stare and the target he has picked between the goalposts, a trajectory that was as true as ever here where his perfect return from five kicks yielded 13 points.

Wilkinson also played a part in both Toulon tries, switching play for one, firing out a trademark flat pass for the other, the link man, the ever-dependable pivot, but more than that still.

He is Toulon's conscience, the ethical reference point for all these sporting high-rollers lured to the Cote d'Azur by the wealth of owner Mourad Boudjellal, the player who keeps the side honest. Without Wilkinson, Toulon would run the risk of being just a bunch of studded-boot mercenaries, on contract to play but under little obligation to sacrifice one's very being to another.

It will be fascinating to see how they cope without him for Wilkinson has ensured that they keep to the straight and narrow because that is how he leads his life, and that was very much clear in the manner of Toulon's victory. It was based on the simple tenet of subdue and dominate, Toulon pounding away until the pressure told.

It was brutal but it was effective, and Wilkinson was the exemplar, giving off himself until there was no more to give. Of course, it was Wilkinson who drew the applause of the Millennium Stadium crowd.

Why would they not pay homage, Saracens supporters as willingly as those of Toulon, for the man who celebrated his 35th birthday yesterday with back-to-back Heineken Cup titles to his name?

The worship is not that of a vacuous cult following. Wilkinson has earned those plaudits.

Typically, he shrugged them off, desperate to share the bucketloads of love coming his way with others.

"I make no secret of the fact that I have been over-supported, that I have been given way too much respect," Wilkinson said.

"I have been given too much of an easy life compared to others who have deserved so much more and not had it. I have been very aware of that. I have tried to keep my feet as much as I can on the ground. Not that that shows strength on my part – just that someone is going to realise that I am a bit of a fraud in that respect.

"These guys here, my team-mates, are the ones who make the difference yet it is not they who got cheered at the end of the game like I was. People have been so generous.

"I do a job that is my passion, my love and I'm paid well to do it, so who could be luckier than me? When people go out of their way to cheer for you, it is humbling."

Those hosannas will not fade for some time yet, even though Wilkinson has only one more week as a professional player.

Even on Saturday night, with the glow of the moment yet to fade, he was already thinking ahead as to what he needs to do to ensure that Toulon go one better than they did last season by beating Castres on Saturday night in Paris in the Top 14 final to become the first French side to do the Heineken Cup and domestic double in the modern era.

Then, and only then, might he attempt to switch off, not treat every weekend as if, as he puts it, it is "do-or-die".

The interment rites were never likely to be read on Saturday even if Wilkinson himself professed that every game appears "out of control", as regards the outcome.

Saracens were valiant and resourceful but, even though there was never a sense of them being swept aside as they had been by Clermont Auvergne two years ago in a Heineken quarter-final, the game was up by the hour mark when the impressive Juan Smith scored Toulon's second try.

Smith traded passes down the right flank with the equally splendid Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the Argentinian who was far more reliable a support when lifting Wilkinson with the trophy at the end than he had been when tipping Saracens lock Alistair Hargreaves midway through the first half and earning a yellow card. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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