Young and old, in Farrell and Wilkinson, will dominate European Cup final
A World Cup winner and one of England’s greatest ever players, Jonny Wilkinson can also sign off his brilliant career as a double European champion if Toulon defend their European Cup title by beating Saracens in Saturday’s final in Cardiff.
For someone so modest and self-effacing, Wilkinson won’t be happy that he has hogged the limelight ahead of the Millennium Stadium showpiece following his announcement this week that he is retiring at the end of this season.
There are many subplots to the match – among them, Toulon bidding to become only the third team to retain the trophy while ambitious Saracens are seeking a first European title – but the Wilkinson narrative stands out.
The former England flyhalf is heading into the final week of his 17-year career, with the European Cup final to be followed on May 31 by his last ever match – Toulon’s Top 14 final against Castres.
Can Wilkinson go out on a high?
“Now is the right time and right feeling,” the 34-year-old Wilkinson said of his decision to retire. “It’s a weight off my shoulders, to be honest.
“Everyone thinks they can carry on forever, but it is becoming ever more apparent when you see the size of the guys running alongside you, and at you, that it is a younger man’s sport.”
Wilkinson’s farewell to European rugby could be ruined by the man who has replaced him as the fulcrum of England’s Test team, Saracens No 10 Owen Farrell.
Farrell idolises Wilkinson and has a similar game to his hero, with his unforgiving place-kicking and tough defence. In fact, Farrell believes Wilkinson is probably the best No 10 to have played the game.
The veteran thinks his protege isn’t bad, either.
“He is a representation of all that is good in (the England and Saracens) teams at the moment in terms of his skill level, his understanding of the game, leadership qualities and such like,” Wilkinson said.
At least at club level, this is the greatest test of the 22-year-old Farrell’s career. The same is true of Saracens, too.
They are the Toulon of England, spending masses of cash through their South African backers to become the superpower of their domestic league, the Aviva Premiership. European domination is the next natural step.
Saracens have had a grand vision ever since the days of early professionalism when worldwide stars Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella and Francois Pienaar joined the London club. In recent years, they have tried to spread the Saracens brand by tying up partnership deals in Romania, Abu Dhabi, Moscow and Malaysia.
Saracens’ ambitions are finally being realised. They topped the regular-season standings in the Premiership and will face Northampton in the grand final on May 31, while a 46-6 victory over Clermont in the European Cup semi-finals was the most jaw-dropping result of this season’s competition.
“The last three years we have been in a quarter-final, semi-final and now a final. I think it just takes time,” Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said. “You have to put yourselves there or thereabouts. We think we have developed as a squad.”
Saracens have the likes of Farrell and fellow England internationals Chris Ashton, Alex Goode and Brad Barritt in their back division and the Vunipola brothers, Scotland flanker Kelly Brown and South African hooker Schalk Brits in their pack. Captain Steve Borthwick is a former England international who is also retiring at the end of the season, although the lock is a fitness doubt with a chest injury.
Toulon, though, have arguably the most star-studded squad ever seen in European rugby, with owner Mourad Boudjellal spending the fortune he made from publishing comic books. Their line-up reads like a Who’s Who of the sport – Bryan Habana, Matt Giteau, Carl Hayman, Juan Smith, Juan Fernandez-Lobbe and, of course, Wilkinson.
Only Leicester and Leinster have retained the trophy and Toulon are the favourite to do the same in what will be the competition’s last in its Heineken Cup guise before being rejigged as the Rugby Champions Cup.
Wilkinson booted four kicks from four for 11 points in the 16-15 victory over Clermont in last year’s final.
Another win on Europe’s biggest stage, 12 months on, would be a fitting way for him to bow out.
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Published: May 22, 2014 04:00 AM