God Save the Queen rang round Stade de France at the end of Saturday’s Top 14 final, as Toulon fans gave their hero – the man who had just kicked them to their first French title since 1992, the man who had guided them to two Heineken Cup wins in as many years – the send off he deserved.
Jonny Wilkinson made sure his final performance on a rugby pitch was as near to perfect as makes no odds.
From the moment he kicked Toulon into a seventh-minute lead, to the cool-headed appraisal of the situation six tension-filled minutes from time, when he put the team first and handed a long-range penalty shot to Delon Armitage rather than take it himself, this was vintage, game-winning Wilkinson.
Armitage, for the record, also held his nerve to land the 53m shot at goal that took Toulon eight points clear.
They won’t admit it, but Toulon needed Wilkinson. Everything else they threw at Castres on Saturday – and they threw absolutely everything – was repelled. Not always easily, but it was repelled. The Top 14’s defending champions were not about to give up their grip on the Bouclier de Brennus easily, and their defence was hermetically sealed.
In fact, the Var side’s fans had planned to start singing the British national anthem in honour of their fly-half hero 10 minutes into the first half – but the unfamiliar words died in their throats as Max Evans scored under the posts to finish off a move that he had started just outside his own 22.
In the 2013 final, Rory Kockott’s try – which, like Evans’s on Saturday, came pretty much against the run of play, knocked the winning mentality out of Toulon. They made mistakes, which Kockott, and then Remi Tales, capitalised on.
But Toulon v2014 is a very different model to Toulon v2013. And Toulon v2014 knows how to win. Winning meant Wilkinson had to kick the penalties when they were given, because there was no other way through the Castres defence.
He made it 7-6 after 23 minutes, and 10-9 after 32 minutes to make sure Castres never felt as if they had any control of the game.
Not that they did have anything resembling control at any point. Toulon enjoyed most of the possession and territory all night. They made pretty patterns in midfield, but Castres held firm. They gave the ball to Bakkies Botha and Mathieu Bastareaud who tried to batter their way through the defending champions’ defence – but the Castres line would not be broken.
But whenever the Tarn side did get hands on the ball, they found Toulon’s defence was even more ferocious than their own. Toulon were quicker to the breakdown. They were brutal in the rucks and mauls. They were tighter and meaner in the scrums. They were more clinical in every aspect of the game. They were better.
Under the new coaching team of Matthias Rolland, David Darricarrère and Serge Milhas, Castres have played a more expansive game. It can be exciting to watch, if the opponents play their part, too, but Toulon weren’t playing that game. They were playing the rugby that won them the Heineken Cup in Cardiff last week. Brutal. Clinical. Effective.
Wilkinson, somewhat surprisingly given that he was performing his role as coolhead in chief to perfection supplied the single romantic moment five minutes before the end of the first half. Another Toulon attack was threatening to peter out when the ball came his way just outside the Castres 22.
In a fraction of a micro-second he lined up his options, calculated all the percentages, decided on his move, and swung his foot. The drop-goal attempt sailed straight and true through the middle of the posts. For the first time since Evans’s try 25 minutes earlier, Toulon were ahead. It was 12-10.
It was a lead they wouldn’t lose. Kockott had two chances to kick Castres ahead before the break, but missed them both. He would miss another in the second half. Wilkinson – and later Armitage – would not miss.
The second half turned into a war of attrition. This was not a vintage rugby final, but it was a textbook one as Toulon simply held Castres at arm’s length. As they chased the game, the defending champions gave away silly penalties or knocked on. Against this Toulon, indiscipline and errors are additionally costly.
It was left to replacement scrum-half Michael Claassens to kick the ball into the crowd after the hooter sounded to seal an 18-10 win and send Toulon’s players, staff and fans into paroxysms of joy.
As Jonny Wilkinson the player goes into the rugby night – and a job on the staff at Toulon – he goes with two more winner’s medals and the adulation of much more just a blue-collar naval town on the south coast of France to his name. He’ll be feted across France and England and the rugby world for the rest of his life.
It’s no less than he deserves.
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images