Wilkinson steers Toulon into euro finale
April 28, 2013
Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson slots a kick on his return to Twickenham
© PA Photos
Can the Lions ignore Wilkinson?
Wilkinson, 34 next month, kicked seven penalties and a late drop-goal as Toulon saw off their Premiership rivals to book their place at Dublin's Aviva Stadium on May 18 where they will tackle fellow French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne. And in doing so he might have presented an irresistible case to be part of the British & Irish Lions squad for this summer's Australia tour less than 48 hours before it is announced.
It will be the tournament's fourth all-French final in 11 years, and Saracens - despite Wilkinson's opposite number Owen Farrell booting four penalties - could have few complaints. Toulon, with their Argentinian back-row forward Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe in towering form, deservedly took the spoils, with Wilkinson imperiously taking every scoring chance that came his way.
A seven-from-seven penalty return meant Toulon had a guaranteed avenue of points in their team and, with try-scoring chances few and far between, it was Wilkinson's remarkable accuracy that made the difference. The only disappointment was that barely 25,000 spectators witnessed it, with Twickenham more than two-thirds empty.
Farrell and his midfield partner Joel Tomkins were guilty of wasting opportunities by throwing out wild passes, yet Saracens' hopes of a domestic and European double floundered against opponents who enjoyed an edge in most departments.
Lobbe led the way and, although Toulon have enjoyed Heineken Cup quarter- and semi-final success this season without scoring a try, it hardly matters when they can fall back on a marksman of Wilkinson's ability.
Saracens will now focus their attention on the Premiership - they are guaranteed a home play-off in two weeks' time - but hopes of European success are on hold for at least another season.
Saracens went into their second Heineken semi-final without injured flanker Will Fraser - a try-scorer in the previous round against Ulster, which meant Jackson Wray was called up and Scotland captain Kelly Brown moved to openside flanker.
Toulon surprisingly left their star number seven, England international Steffon Armitage, on the bench, but they still paraded a back-row of immense ability in Danie Rossouw, Lobbe and Chris Masoe.
With Warren Gatland and his entire Lions coaching staff among the crowd, it was a final chance for Australia tour candidates like Brown, Mako Vunipola and Matt Stevens to press claims ahead of Tuesday's Lions squad announcement.
But the pivotal individual battle was at fly-half between England past and present - Wilkinson versus Farrell - as the former made his first Twickenham appearance since a 2011 World Cup warm-up game between England and Wales.
Farrell drew first blood, kicking a third-minute penalty after Rossouw's high tackle on Vunipola, but Wilkinson quickly hauled Toulon level through a wide-angled strike when Stevens infringed.
Toulon settled impressively into the game and, after Wilkinson nudged them ahead with his second penalty, they should have scored when wing Alexis Palisson sliced open Saracens' defence.
Palisson, clear in space, could have run further, but he opted to kick ahead and the ball bounced agonisingly out of full-back Delon Armitage's reach.
A third Wilkinson penalty soon extended the lead, though, and Saracens had been given an early reminder of Toulon's impressive all-round firepower.
Farrell temporarily reduced the arrears with his second successful penalty, but Wilkinson soon resumed normal service through a fourth penalty in 19 minutes that again punished poor Saracens' technical discipline.
Farrell had a chance to tie the scores just before half-time, but his kick from halfway drifted wide and Toulon trooped off 12-9 ahead, with Wilkinson leading his opposite number 4-3.
Saracens made their first change five minutes into the second period, sending on wing Chris Wyles for David Strettle, before another Wilkinson penalty increased Toulon's advantage to six points.
But that was the cue for Rossouw to commit another high tackle on Vunipola, and he collected a yellow card from referee Alain Rolland, before Farrell landed the resulting penalty.
Vunipola had become a prominent figure in the game with his all-action style, and a powerful charge deep into Toulon territory gave Saracens an imposing attacking platform that was wasted when Farrell threw out a forward pass.
It was a bad error by the England star, who then found himself switched to inside centre after Charlie Hodgson replaced a limping Brad Barritt, and Hodgson arrived just in time to see Wilkinson kick penalty number six, finding the target from two metres inside his own half.
And a trademark drop-goal six minutes from time - he found the target despite Farrell's despairing tackle - took Toulon marching on.
Saracens' Owen Farrell and Brad Barritt combine to shackle Jonny Wilkinson © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ireland have the world sitting up and taking notice - and rugby's structure in Europe will aid their Rugby World Cup bid, writes John Mitchell
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery
Monday Maul takes in retirement talk, England reshuffles, France's unfair advantage and Scotland's communication breakdown