RARELY BEFORE HAS an English rugby player been as universally loved as Jonny Wilkinson.
Nobody within the game has a bad word to say against the 2003 World Cup winner, while few supporters will have begrudged him a second Heineken Cup title after years of trophyless loyalty to previous club Newcastle.
His skill, thirst for perfection and gentle nature away from from the pitch have made him an eminently likeable character throughout his wonderful career. His typically selfless personality was in evidence again following the final whistle of Toulon’s 23-6 Heineken Cup final victory over Saracens.
I can’t say enough just how proud I am to have been part of that, to be part of this team, to have been able to play in this competition and against teams like that, Wilkinson told Sky Sports.
“We’ve had a hell of a time and our season has got one more week left, but this is something I’ll take with me forever. There’s a lot of relief, a lot of excitement, just a lot of sheer adulation. I’ll work it out later on, but it’s just about trying to take it all in now.”
The 34-year-old scored two penalties, two superb touchline conversion and a sweetly-struck drop goal for the French side as they retained their crown in the face of a limited Saracens effort.
Quizzed on the drop goal, Wilkinson again deflected the attention onto his teammates and the occasion itself.
“Sometimes you have a bit of a pop to nothing and they go well, sometimes they don’t. Thankfully, that one went through, but it all comes down to the team and what they do, the effort and the energy.
That goes for Saracens as well; it’s a hell of a season they’re having and still one game to go. It’s a privilege to have been part of this game and to have won it is… I couldn’t have asked for more.”
Meanwhile, Saracen’s head coach, Mark McCall, conceded that his men had been beaten by a high-quality side. The former Irish international would have been disappointed that Sarries racked up only six points, but accepted that Toulon were deserving.
“I think we came up against an exceptional side today who were on top of their game,” McCall told Sky. “It seemed that in the first half that we gave as good as we got, we had a decent amount of field position during that time and they defended superbly well.
“They had one opportunity, a counter attack if we are honest. A bit of genius from Matt Giteau and a bounce of the ball and somehow you’re seven points behind and didn’t feel that way.
“I often felt that we were right in the game, we did well to get ourselves to 10-6, and even at 13-6 we though that were massively still in the game, but their second try was a killer.”
Saracens’ focus now turns to next weekend’s Premiership final against Northampton at Twickenham. McCall has no worries about his players’ ability to motivate themselves for another final.
One of the great qualities of the group is our ability to respond to setbacks that we’ve had.
“If we were playing Newcastle away next week I’d back our group to front up, never mind the fact we’re playing in the Premiership final – I’ve got no question whatsoever that we’ll give a good account of ourselves next Saturday”.