Former Wallaby marvels at former rival’s dedication to the game.
Australia’s Matt Giteau said it had been a pleasure to be on the same side when Jonny Wilkinson scored a drop-goal following Toulon’s European Cup semi-final win over Saracens at Twickenham.
England great Wilkinson delivered a near-faultless display, scoring all of the French club’s points, in a 24-12 victory after landing all seven of his penalty attempts and a decisive late drop-goal in what could be his final appearance at Twickenham, the scene of so many of his triumphs.
A decade ago Wilkinson broke Australian hearts by kicking an extra-time drop-goal that gave England a dramatic win over the Wallabies in the World Cup final in Sydney.
For Giteau, who came off the bench in that 2003 match, Sunday’s success was a refreshing change.
“As an Australian, it’s good to be on Wilko’s side for once when he scores a drop-goal,” said Giteau, Toulon’s inside centre on Sunday.
Wilkinson may have retired from England duty two years ago but Sunday’s performance saw UK bookmakers Ladbrokes cut his odds of being named in coach Warren Gatland’s British and Irish Lions squad for the forthcoming tour of Australia, due to be announced Tuesday, to 5/6.
John Smit, South Africa’s captain when they won the 2007 World Cup and another member of Toulon’s star-studded squad, added: “Jonny Wilkinson, he is master-class.
“If I was an Australian, I would say don’t take Wilko for the Lions!”
Almost as inevitable as the drop-goal, was that renowned perfectionist Wilkinson, England’s record points-scorer, was seen training at Twickenham several hours before the 3pm kick-off.
“To be back this morning, I was able to hit a few balls and it was brilliant to have the stadium to yourself,” said Wilkinson, who had last played at Twickenham in a 2011 World Cup warm-up match.
“It seems a bit sorry to say it, but I actually enjoy Twickenham just as much when there’s no-one in it – it’s like being a kid again. You dream of that, it’s like your playground.
“What it represents to me is incredibly special.”
Sunday’s match was billed as a clash of England fly-halves past and present, with Saracens fielding 21-year-old current Red Rose No.10 Owen Farrell.
Kiwi coach Gatland, among a Twickenham crowd that saw Toulon captain Wilkinson outshine Farrell, has indicated he won’t select French-based players for the Lions as the final of France’s domestic Top 14 Championship takes place on June 1 — the same day the Lions begin their tour against the Barbarians in Hong Kong.
Toulon are in the Top 14 semi-finals and Wilkinson, twice a Lions tourist, said younger fly-halves, including Farrell, who landed four out of five penalties on Sunday, deserved a chance to represent the combined side.
“The Lions stuff, it’s difficult for me. I think it’s fabulous. It’s up there with the most amazing experience you can possibly get in rugby,” Wilkinson said.
“I watch these other guys like Owen Farrell and Toby Flood in England, and Dan Biggar in Wales and Johnny Sexton in Ireland and any number of other guys, they are driving rugby forward and perhaps they should be the ones driving this (Lions) tour forward as well.”
Wilkinson’s worth to a team who, like the stand-off himself, will be playing in a first European Cup final when they face French rivals Clermont in Dublin next month, was emphasised by Toulon coach Bernard Laporte.
“Jonny is a great player and has been for a long time. We’ve seen before he is a great player and we’ve seen it again,” said Laporte, who often found himself trying to nullify Wilkinson’s impact when coach of France.
Meanwhile Saracens boss Mark McCall hailed Wilkinson’s resilience.
“Jonny’s an icon of rugby but the most impressive thing about him is that, having had a stellar start to his career, he then had three or four very difficult years when he was injured lots,” he said.
“But at 33 he’s showing his best rugby and it shows a brilliant and professional mentality. He always wants to improve.”