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Dublin: 4°C Friday 5 March 2021

Kicking king: ‘Life just gets better and better’ for Jonny Wilkinson

The English number 10 says this Heineken Cup victory has in many ways eclipsed his World Cup win.

Image: Julien Behal/PA Wire/Press Association Images

JONNY WILKINSON’S SATURDAY in Dublin wasn’t entirely perfect.

It certainly didn’t start according to plan and he probably hadn’t counted on charging towards a last-minute drop-goal attempt which would have turned a monumental effort into a crushing defeat.

He woke early and headed out into the grey morning to practice his kicking. But there was no room at the Aviva for poor Jonny. The gates were locked. The normally meticulous Wilkinson hadn’t considered the venue’s opening hours.

Instead, he came back hours later; first off the team bus and onto the field to sample the conditions in the new Lansdowne Road.

He’s been here since his most famous appearance, part of that steam-rolling English Grand Slam winning side of 2003. He won another medal that year too, but after scoring 11 points [including the winning conversion] in a 15-16 Heineken Cup final victory he felt past achievements pale in comparison.

Discounting a couple of Anglo-Welsh Cups, it’s his first honour at club level since Newcastle’s 1998 Premiership win. So this is the one that glitters even brighter than the William Webb Ellis trophy.

He says “it’s right up there.” And if that is a phrase that has almost lost its meaning by the frequency with which sportsmen use it, then Wilkinson made sure to make himself clear.

“In fact, it sort of goes beyond. Because your life is in the now, not in the past. [It’s about] the next goal you set yourself.

“Life just gets better and better if you’re with a team like this and you’re with guys like this day in, day out at a club as good as this.

“So for me it ranks right up there. it’s been hugely important: You ask the question whether you still merit being there or deserve to be in a team like this and trying to add something for Toulon. Moments like this just give you a chance to look at it and show you what an amazing opportunity we all have.”

Watching Wilkinson pull and cajole his team to victory with 32% possession would have been a pleasure if it didn’t look so hard. Here is a man who has spent far too much of the past decade on the injured list and only last month decided to extend his career by 12 months.

Yet there he was; sprinting 50 metres after his clearance kicks, still tackling like a centre and still showing that trademark flawlessness in front of goal.

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“Regarding the end of the game,” Wilkinson continued with Europe’s media hanging on to his every eloquent word.

Niall Carson/PA Wire/Press Association Images

“Well you just go on for as long you can. I was next to Mathieu Bastareaud when he sprinted out to charge that down. We could see [David] Skrela going for it – It sounded like he struck it very well, so I imagine it was probably on its way or certainly not far off – it’s moments like that just give you another lifeline; just another chance to hang on, hang on, hang on.

“At stages like this you fight for a bit. Every time you fight to just stick in there. And that’s what makes it feel so good at the end, because every bit of that fight, every bit of that energy counts. You never know which one is the most important, but certainly that charge-down from Bastareaud was necessary.”

With form, pedigree and cool motivational snippets like his, the Lions link is inevitable for the European Player of the Year – especially when Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell remain the only specialists in the touring party.

‘I need to be at 100% just to survive”

However, Wilkinson is nothing if not a model pro and he again quietly and firmly emphasised that Toulon is all that matters to him… for now.

“It’s fairly clear-cut in my head. I had a chat with Warren Gatland just before the announcement. I said: this is me now. At this stage of my career this is the way it has to be and it needs to be understood.

“In these games as you see today – Jeez, I don’t know how many tackles we made – and what we did, I need to be at 100% in there just to survive.

“For me, it’s difficult to think about further than we’ve got possibly two more games, definitely one [Friday versus Toulouse]. We’ve just to go all out because the next game will be a bit like that.

“We’ve got a hellish amount of work to do against a great team.”

Sounds like another perfect day.

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