Jonny provides perfect ending

Toulon 23 Saracens 6

Jonny provides perfect ending

Rugby came full circle as Cardiff bore witness to the end of an era.

This was far from a classic final yet the result befitted the sense of occasion to provide a fairytale climax to both the Heineken Cup and Jonny Wilkinson.

Nineteen years after the city hosted the inaugural European Cup final, the Heineken Cup returned for the last time on a day of nostalgia inside the Millennium Stadium.

Toulouse captain Emile Ntamack, the first to lift the trophy as it was back in 1996, led the pageantry before kick-off and once again it was a French team that left with the cup.

This time, however, it was an Englishman who had the honour of collecting the silverware as Wilkinson took his bow on a stage tailor-made for his European farewell.

As the final moments ticked by, all eyes were on the former world record points-scorer who has become a hero on both sides of the Channel.

Fans of every persuasion craned with mobile phones in hand to capture a moment of a player who set new — almost obsessive — levels of professionalism.

Even among exalted company of his ‘Galactico’ team-mates on the sidelines, dwarfed by rugby monoliths such as Bakkies Botha, Carl Hayman and Danie Rossouw, Wilkinson stood head and shoulders above the rest.

He proved once again to be the man for the big occasion with a faultless display with the boot, kicking 13 points. That including converting both tries, by Matt Giteau and Juan Smith, from the touchlines as well as a snap drop-goal, almost on the move, with his ‘wrong’ foot, that same right peg that sealed a moment of World Cup history in Sydney back in 2003.

Eleven years on, and Wilkinson was still at it, his place in rugby immortality guaranteed.

“Jonny is a proper legend. If anyone needs an example of how to be as a sportsman, just pick Jonny,” explained Toulon team-mate Juan Fernandez Lobbe.

“You need to work hard and for the team and Jonny is the greatest example, I repeat, the greatest example of that. I would go anywhere behind Jonny.

“A minute of rugby with him would’ve been enough because it’s been a pleasure.”

It was the result that delighted the sentiment of the neutrals — and there were plenty of those in the 67,000 crowd.

Toulon and Saracens may be the new powerhouses of Europe but these nouveau riche cannot compete with the old guard when it comes to travelling support.

Between them they boasted one of the most star-studded line-ups ever assembled on a rugby final. Toulon alone kicked-off with five World Cup winners and a sixth on the bench.

Yet, remarkably, these clubs sold barely 7,000 tickets between them. Nevertheless Toulon emulated Leicester and Leinster by winning back-to-back titles and with the resources and finances provided by the deep pockets of owner Mourad Boudjellal, who made his millions from publishing comics, few can see an end to their reign.

“People think we’re just a bunch of foreigners on holiday in the south of France, earning a fortune and getting ready to retire, but we’ve proved over the last two years how hard we work and how much we care,” said 34-year-old Springbok Botha.

This game pitted the seemingly unstoppable force of Toulon’s giant ball-carriers against the immovable object that was Saracens’ stubborn defence.

And there was nothing subtle about this game, particularly in the opening 20 minutes that were punishing for both sides. Yet as the knocks swiftly took their toll and referee Alain Rolland assumed an ever more central role to events, the delays threatened to wreck the match as a spectacle.

It was not until Wilkinson changed things, switching the direction of attack so Giteau could kick ahead and then race onto Drew Mitchell’s pass that the game showed any signs of creativity. For Owen Farrell, the young pretender to Wilkinson’s England throne, another lesson of the work that has to be done. He was fortunate not to receive a yellow for a late hit on Bryan Habana, but by then the game had gone following Smith’s try.

Saracens’ former Ulster coach Mark McCall said: “We did some good things but the referee was harsh on us at the breakdown and we came up against an exceptional team.

“We still believed at 13-6 but the second try was a killer, even with 20 minutes still left.”

It will be an uphill task for anyone to topple Toulon, particularly as we look towards a new, streamlined Rugby Champions Cup next season.

SARACENS: A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt, D Strettle (C Wyles, 69); O Farrell (C Hodgson, 64), R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 51); M Vunipola (R Barrington, 65), S Brits (J George, 69), M Stevens (J Johnston, 64), S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (M Botha, 64), K Brown, J Burger (J Wray, 61), B Vunipola.

TOULON: D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana; J Wilkinson (capt, M Mermoz, 77), S Tillous-Borde (M Claasens, 71); X Chiocci (A Menini, 46), C Burden (JC Orioli, 41), C Hayman (M Castrogiovanni, 57), B Botha (A Williams, 52), D Rossouw (J Suta, 52), J Smith (V Bruni, 72), J M Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage.

Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).

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