Wilkinson inspires Toulon to glory

ASM Clermont Auvergne 15 Toulon 16

Wilkinson inspires Toulon to glory

One only has to recall the dominance Ireland enjoyed in Edinburgh during this year’s Six Nations and the fact that Scotland won the game to know that it’s not the amount of territory and possession you enjoy but what you do with it that really counts.

And so it was on Saturday at the Aviva Stadium, where red-hot Heineken Cup favourites ASM Clermont Auvergne bossed the game but somehow managed to miss out on their Holy Grail of European glory to fellow first-time finalists Toulon. Clermont were faultless at the set-piece, enjoyed 68% of possession and 75% of territory, made 21 offloads, beat Toulon defenders 24 times and forced them to make 176 tackles.

And they outscored their French rivals by two tries to one but still contrived to lose this gripping encounter.

They had hung on for their semi-final victory over Munster last month by their fingernails but could not manage it a second time as Napolioni Nalaga and Brock James’s tries just after the interval opened up the game after a tense first half had ended all square at 3-3.

Clermont were 15-6 up with half an hour to play but the next 15 minutes saw Toulon rally, with two penalties from captain Jonny Wilkinson and then a breakaway try from a superb steal at the tackle area from flanker Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe who set free Delon Armitage. Wilkinson’s conversion edged Toulon in front by a point and that’s the way it stayed, as Clermont spent the final 15 minutes hammering at the door only to be denied by the pure, stubborn refusal to be beaten of the team from the Mediterranean coast.

“Our defence was fantastic,” said Toulon’s Australian centre Matt Giteau. “I think we attacked for 10 minutes of that whole 80. Clermont had a lot of the ball but we scrambled really well and it was desperation stuff at times but we closed down drop kicks, chased balls and made tackles and that was what probably won us the game.”

That and Wilkinson’s grace under fire. The England World Cup winner has not enjoyed as glittering a career at club level but he made the most of this belated trip to a first Heineken Cup final and a week shy of his 34th birthday completed an unblemished kicking performance in the European knockout stages this season with four kicks from four at the Aviva Stadium.

“He’s phenomenal,” Giteau said. “For someone like Jonny who trains as hard as he does, he deserves everything he gets. I’ve never seen anyone train as hard as he does and work as hard as he does, but not for himself, it’s for the betterment of the team. It’s great for me he’s not going on the Lions tour, I’m an Australian. I’m happy Jonny’s staying here!”

Wilkinson acknowledged the work ethic described by Giteau had often made life difficult for those nearest and dearest to him.

“My other half and my mum and dad were here and it’s great to share that moment with these people. They take God knows how much stick, it’s very selfish life playing professional sport, we’re always on the road doing our own thing and I’m an absolute nightmare to spend time with. They might as well not be there, it’s terrible. I wouldn’t want to spend time with myself, but I have to.”

Such is the English media’s fixation with all things Wilkinson it is sometimes easy to dismiss the player’s impact on a game as overblown Fleet Street hyperbole. Cut through that, though, and you will witness a veteran fly-half still at the peak of his considerable powers. On a weekend when Ronan O’Gara rightfully gained praise for his contribution to the Munster and Irish rugby cause over 16 years, it is correct that Wilkinson gets his too.

Against Clermont it was not just the Englishman’s kicking that deserved credit but his leadership; his cool, calm and considered control of his team as Clermont threw everything they had at Toulon. Vern Cotter’s Clermont side eventually lost the plot as the clock counted down, replacement fly-half David Skrela seeing a drop-goal attempt blocked by man of the match Mathieu Bastareaud — with a similarly charging Wilkinson narrowing his options on the battering ram’s shoulder — and then going walkabout, shying away from the pocket an O’Gara or Wilkinson would relish for another shot at glory. That forced replacement scrum-half Ludovic Radosavljevic to fling the ball wide where some sloppy passing twice thwarted the effort, this final ending with a forward pass to the despairing Sitiveni Sivivatu out on the right wing. “We had an opportunity to kill the game and we did not,” Clermont flanker Julien Bonnaire said ruefully. “We made silly mistakes and we cannot afford that. It’s disappointing, because we have expended a lot of energy without gaining a lot from it.”

Bonnaire will hope his team-mates quickly regroup as Clermont’s season, like Toulon’s, is far form over. Both have Top 14 semi-finals to contest next weekend with the potential to set up a rematch in Nantes on June 1 for the coveted Bouclier de Brennus. You’d almost pity Castres having to face Bonnaire and co, let alone Toulon or Toulouse in the final the week after, because this Clermont side will surely never again dominate a game as much as they did in Dublin and endure so awful an outcome.

ASM CLERMONT AUVERGNE: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie – captain (R King, 69), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James (D Skrela, 73), M Parra (L Radosavljevic, 71); T Domingo (V Debaty, 66), B Kayser (T Paulo, 66), D Zirakashvili (C Ric, 73); J Cudmore, N Hines; J Bonnaire, G Vosloo (J Bardy, 69), D Chouly.

Replacements not used: J Pierre.

TOULON: D Armitage; R Wulf, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, A Palisson; J Wilkinson — captain, S Tillous-Borde (F Michalak, 51); A Sheridan (G Jenkins, 61), S Bruno (J C Orioli, 51), C Hayman (D Kubriashvili, 77); B Botha (S Armitage, 69), N Kennedy; D Rossouw (J Van Niekerk, 51), J M Fernandez Lobbe, C Masoe (J Suta, 69).

Replacements not used: M Mermoz.

Referee: Alain Roland (IRFU).

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