The Irish Mail on Sunday
WILKINSON’S MASTERCLASS PROVES VITAL
IT HAD to be perfect. Jonny Wilkinson played his last game of professional rugby on UK soil by producing a masterclass of goalkicking that rolled back the years and crushed Saracens’ dreams.
In truth, they were never really at the races as Toulon’s galacticos showed they are more than just a collection of big names on the team-sheet by crushing, squeezing and then stabbing Saracens with two rapier thrusts either side of half-time.
Last week the English club’s director of rugby Mark McCall described Toulon as being capable of playing with opponents ‘like a cat plays with a mouse’ and this morning he knows just how it feels to be the victim of their feline control.
Every time they attempted to attack they were smothered and thumped to the floor while every time they made an error, Wilkinson was there to punish them with a flawless goal-kicking display.
His fast-twitch fibres may not be quite as sharp as they once were but his goal-kicking is as deadly as ever. Saracens knew it, but could do nothing about it.
‘There’s a lot of relief and excitement at the moment,’ Wilkinson said. ‘At the moment I’m just trying to take it all in. Everything comes from all the hard work of the team and that goes for Saracens as well. I couldn’t have asked for more.’
The north London club must now pick themselves up and somehow muster the emotional energy to beat Northampton in next Saturday’s Aviva Premiership final.
They are unquestionably the best side in England and it would be cruel if they ended the season trophyless again. But it will be a huge ask to regroup in time to beat a Northampton side buoyed by their Amlin Challenge Cup triumph over Bath on Friday night.
Yesterday they simply could not find a way through Toulon’s brick wall rush defence. They will perhaps feel aggrieved that Toulon flanker Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe escaped with only a yellow card when he collared Saracens lock Alistair Hargreaves while he was jumping for the ball, causing him to land heavily on his neck and requiring extensive treatment on the floor.
Ulster full back Jarod Payne was shown a red card in their quarter-final against Sarries for a challenge in the air on Alex Goode which, while reckless, was unintentional. Lobbe’s challenge appeared far worse and Rolland’s decision to show him only a yellow card was another example of the inconsistent refereeing which infuriates coaches and players.
Former England full back Delon Armitage and Toulon hooker Craig Burden may receive letters from citing commissioner Douglas Hunter for first-half cheap shots on Saracens players missed by referee Alain Rolland.
But the totality of Toulon’s domination could not be argued with. Matt Giteau scored a superbly taken 31st-minute try, converted by Wilkinson and followed by a trademark drop goal, as Toulon went in at halftime 10-6 in front after Owen Farrell – struggling with a foot injury – kicked two penalties.
Springbok flanker Juan Smith combined brilliantly with Mathieu Bastareaud and Lobbe down the right to effectively close the game out after 59 minutes.
Toulon No 8 Steffon Armitage – who England will not pick on residency grounds – had an immense game and deservedly won the man-of-the-match award with four turnovers. ‘The boys today were superb,’ Armitage said. ‘We never gave up. The boys around me did all the work for me.’
Special mention should also be made of Saracens captain Steve Borthwick for defying the odds to play with a pectoral muscle injury while Billy Vunipola was typically manful.