England’s finest guides his Toulon side to victory in his final game
At full time in the Stade de France, at the end of the country’s Top 14 play-off final, the loudspeakers blasted out God Save The Queen. As a mark of the respect in which Jonny Wilkinson was held by French rugby, there could be no more significant than that, playing the enemy’s anthem in the home of the national game. But as Wilkinson led his Toulon side to a European and domestic trophy double, lifting the trophy to huge acclaim, his adopted nation went collectively doolally in its urge to mark his departure.
It has been a fuss fitting and genuinely felt, the one that has greeted the end for Wilkinson, acknowledgement that England’s world cup winner was the epitome of application and humility, not to mention the deadliest of kickers. But it is a fuss that will have had the man himself squirming. More inclined to a brief nod of farewell, he has been obliged instead to partake in a Sinatra-like send-off, a slow, tortuous curtain call.
But this really was the end, his final appearance on a rugby pitch, one acknowledged in silverware thanks to an 18-10 victory over Castres. And like all his others, it was one suffused with selfless dedication to the cause. Captaining his side, he was unstinting, unyielding, absolutely determined to do his bit. He was out on the Stade de France turf forty five minutes before kick-off, brow creased, an intense look on his face as he practised up and unders, drop kicks and penalties. Practice has always made the man. He then stood in the middle of a circle of his colleagues, delivering his captain’s message. We don’t know what was said, but we can guess it was intently rendered.
As he spoke, a full military parade was skirting round the playing area. There were horses, a gun carriage, a couple of tanks and some paratroopers abseiling from a helicopter carrying the trophy. Plus, in what was clearly further homage to the departing Englishman, a contingent from the Foreign Legion.
There was an enormous cheer to greet his name before kick off, from both sets of supporters to acknowledge what this foreigner has done for French rugby. And appropriately his was the first contribution to the game, a kick deep into Castres territory. From that point he was constantly involved, chivvying his team-mates, giving instruction from behind his hand, not once relenting in his work, even after the hooter signalled that time was up on the game and his career.
Seven minutes in he had his first kick at goal. The careful preparation, the steps to the side, the stiff man-at-prayer stance, the little jiggle of the thighs, then three points: how we will miss it.
Castres, surprise winners here last season against the same opponents, responded quickly, with a breakaway try from the exiled Scot Max Evans. But Wilkinson was not to be easily stopped. Not here, not now. This is one trophy he had never won and after 28 minutes, the familiar haunted crouch was seen again, this time directly in front of the posts, albeit 40 yards back. The same build up, the same tension-inducing wait, the same outcome. He scored a third penalty before half time, followed by a dropped-goal to give his side a half time lead. “Crafter” was the sponsor’s message written across his shoulders. It was an apt bit of marketing: he was crafting Toulon to the title.
He was running this game, leaving his mark on the turf as ever. He threw himself into challenges, put himself under every steepled Garryowen, without hint of worry that he was about to be trampled several hundredweight of rampaging Castres forward.
But it was his boot that was making the difference. A fourth penalty early in the second half took Wilkinson’s personal contribution to 15. By now the Castres fans were getting alarmed at the way their chances were being booted away by the Englishman. How they whistled as he lined up his kick. “Merci, de respecter le bouteur,” was the message on the scoreboard. No chance of that. Respect for the great man’s achievements had been laid aside from the first whistle.
Wilkinson, though, showed little concern at the noise, dispatching his kicks with dead eyed precision. Unlike his counterpart, Rory Kockott. The South African kicker had won the game for Castres last season, but this time missed three penalties of a sort Wilkinson would have put away in his sleep. Now it is all over, sadly, in his sleep is the only place England’s finest will be kicking for goal.