Jonny Wilkinson said playing alongside “inspirational” former Australia centre Matt Giteau had convinced him now was the right time to retire.
Wilkinson and Giteau — “the ultimate professional” in the eyes of the England great — were both members of the star-studded Toulon side that retained the European Cup with a 23-6 win over Saracens in the final at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
The match was 2003 World Cup-winner Wilkinson’s last on British soil, with the fly-half set to retire after Toulon’s French Top 14 final against Castres next weekend. He was faultless in kicking 13 points against Saracens, his haul including a drop-goal off his weaker, right foot, just as he’d done to seal England’s extra-time World Cup final against Australia in Sydney 11 years ago.
It was Giteau’s 29th-minute try, however, that propelled Toulon into a lead they never surrendered. Toulon captain Wilkinson switched play with an inside pass to Giteau, whose clever chip kick into space saw Drew Mitchell beat Saracens full-back Alex Goode to the ball.
Former Wallaby wing Mitchell then passed out of the tackle to the supporting Giteau, who’d admirably followed up his own kick, and the centre raced in for a try.
“He’s exceptional,” Wilkinson said of the 31-year-old Giteau, who won the last of his 92 caps in 2011. “I don’t quite know how a team ever let him go in Australia to come over here (Europe),” Wilkinson added of the playmaker, who left the ACT Brumbies for France after a 2011 World Cup where he failed to make the Wallaby squad.
“Since he’s been here he’s done nothing but bring this team up, become better himself and make us all better players,” said Wilkinson, a veteran of 97 Tests, after a victory which came just a day before his 35th birthday.
- ‘Giteau can do anything’ -
“I wouldn’t survive out there without guys like him,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson never looked like missing in landing two conversions, two penalties and that drop-goal against Saracens. But he said there had been times when he had asked Giteau to step in as Toulon’s goal-kicker.
Sometimes this season I haven’t made the first few kicks and I’ve said ‘mate you take the next one’, he (Giteau) just steps up, does it. That’s the kind of guy is. He’s an ultimate professional, he can do just about anything. He’s the reason why someone like me would realise my time is up because you look at him doing what he does and you think ‘this is where the future of this team is’.”
When Toulon coach Bernard Laporte, the former France boss who often had cause to rue Wilkinson’s excellence, withdrew his skipper with three minutes left and the match won, the outside-half walked off to huge roars of approval from a crowd of nearly 68,000 in what must surely count as the most rapturous reception for any England player on a Welsh rugby field.
For Wilkinson it was all too much. ”I’ve made no secret of the fact I’ve been over-supported,” he said. ”I’ve been given way too much respect, I’ve been given too much of an easy life compared to others who have deserved so much more but haven’t had it.”
Wilkinson added: “I’ve tried to keep my feet on the ground, otherwise someone’s going to realise I’m a bit of a fraud.”
Saracens, like Toulon, will have a shot at domestic glory when they face Northampton, winners of the second-tier European Challenge Cup in Cardiff on Friday, in next weekend’s Premiership final.
“I think we came up against an exceptional side,” said Saracens coach Mark McCall, who in the build-up had highlighted the threat posed by Giteau. ”They had one opportunity (in the first half) and a bit of genius for Matt Giteau to see some space in the back-field.”
Toulon No 8 Steffon Armitage, currently not considered by England because he plays his club rugby overseas, was named man-of-the-match after forcing five turnovers.
“They are the exceptional team in Europe over the ball, if you give them any daylight they will make you pay for it,” McCall said.