JONNY Wilkinson will play his final game on British shores this weekend lauded as a “once-in-a-generation” talent.
England’s 2003 World Cup final match-winner leads Toulon into Heineken Cup battle against Saracens at the Millennium Stadium this evening with his magnificent career nearing its conclusion.
He is set to bow out for good after next week’s French Top 14 final appointment with Castres in Paris and Toulon coach – former France national team boss Bernard Laporte – has lavished praise on a player who won 91 England caps and scored more than 1,000 Test points.
“He is an exceptional player – you could talk about him forever,” said Laporte during his pre-match press conference in Cardiff yesterday.
“Players like him only come around once in a generation.
“Once, after we [France] lost against England at Twickenham, I said we have [Zinedine] Zidane, and they have Wilkinson. I was right.
“It is a pleasure to have him. He is a perfectionist, but he is always asking questions as if he is starting out in the game.”
Wilkinson, who will be 35 tomorrow, announced his retirement earlier this week and he said: “I felt the time had come to say that’s that. It is something I felt I had to do. I feel relieved that I have announced it.
“I have always been about the team, for the group to do well. This game [today] is the biggest one as far as I am concerned at the moment. Next week doesn’t really exist.
“It simply comes down to the here and now and for the here and now to be a Heineken Cup final is incredible.
“But the thought of leaving the final without a happy ending to this journey is a painful one, so we’ve got to do everything we can to try to make sure it doesn’t end like that.
“I think everyone plays the game with the aim of trying to leave it in a better place than when you arrived. I have tried to get better and push my own boundaries, but the guys around me, from what I’ve seen, I haven’t been close to touching the levels or the talent of the guys I’ve played with, and a lot of the guys I’ve played against.
“I have been trying to keep up, more than anything, throughout my career, and no more so than at the moment. You do everything you can to get better, but I have been inspired by those around me.
“To do well in this competition takes so much. We’ve had some lucky breaks go our way and, without those, who knows? To have the opportunity to fight again for it is amazing.
“You have to be a better team than last year to keep moving forward, whether that’s in the Top 14 or the Heineken Cup. You have to get better, because everyone else is getting better.”
Wilkinson, who faced a packed press conference room at the Millennium Stadium, also paid tribute to Saracens, who will have Scotland international Kelly Brown starting at blindside flanker, his opposite number this weekend Owen Farrell and Sarries skipper Steve Borthwick, who also retires in eight days’ time.
“Saracens are very strong, hugely consistent and able to go out there, no matter what the conditions, the day, the situation and come through,” he said.
“In order to do well, you need huge understanding, a level of excellence, hard work and mental toughness. You then realise that comes from the individuals and especially from the guys making the decisions.
“Owen Farrell is a younger guy and his ability to do that at this stage in his career is amazing. He embodies what is great about this Saracens team.
“I have known Steve for a long time. He’s been inspirational. He has never compromised his values, his desires, his drive.
“All the values that sum up rugby brilliantly, he has got them in hordes. There has never been a moment where he hasn’t given everything.
“There is a huge amount to be said about Steve. Underneath it all, it is the strength and values of a man that really count.”
Farrell hailed Wilkinson’s “pretty special” quality.
“He is one of the very few players who have come into the game and set his own standards,” said Farrell, speaking at the Millennium Stadium yesterday.
“He has not lived by anybody else’s expectations, he has set his own. There are few people who do that, and there will be few people who do that in the future. When that type of player comes along, it’s pretty special.”