Heineken Cup: Farrell and Wilkinson renew rivalry
The match-up is a repeat of last year’s semi-final, when Toulon prevailed and went on to win the trophy for the first time.
Wilkinson kicked all 24 of Toulon’s points in that Twickenham clash, with Farrell landing four penalties in reply.
Wilkinson’s consoling pat on the back after Farrell’s fruitless attempt to charge down the master’s late drop goal captured their rivalry and respect in an everlasting image.
Twelve months on the two powerhouse teams meet again in the final at Cardiff in a match given an extra resonance by Wilkinson’s confirmation this week that he will retire at the end of the season.
Both clubs have another final on the horizon – Toulon facing Castres in the French Top 14 and Saracens playing Northampton in the Premiership next week – but those domestic issues will be very much on the back burner with European glory at stake.
Toulon are bidding to match Leicester (2001/02) and Leinster (2011/12) by retaining the title, while Saracens are in the final for the first time hoping to become the first English winners since Wasps in 2007.
Both teams are packed with world-class talent in every department and the physical nature of the clash is likely to be immense.
That applies at stand-off, too, where Wilkinson and Farrell pride themselves on their tackling power, but it is likely to be the accuracy of their kicking that makes the difference in a game likely to be close right to the wire. Wilkinson, who turns 35 on Sunday, is as efficient as ever and has the ability to raise his game – or simply control his emotions – in the big games. In the five “knockout” rounds of last year and this year’s Heineken Cups, England’s 2003 World Cup-winner has missed one of his 26 kicks at goal, while he is the leading pointscorer in the competition this season with 100.
As he enters the final days of his remarkable career, he is preparing in the same way as he did when making his England debut as an 18-year-old and laughs off any concept that a fairytale ending is pre-ordained.
“I don’t believe in destiny, only the notion that you get out what you put in,” he said this week. “All you can do is give 100 per cent of yourself, to prepare with 100 per cent focus and then to deal with all those pivotal moments in a match. The outcome will follow. That is how I will prepare for the Saracens match. The same as all the other matches. Not one of them is more important than the other.
“They all demand that you give wholly of yourself and take yourself beyond where you normally are. It is about having the right sort of values, of having respect for your adversary as well as for your team-mates.”
These are values that Farrell, 22, has had hammered into him since boyhood by his father Andy, captain of Wigan and Britain’s rugby league team, and that he has carried proudly into his own union career as he has stepped into Wilkinson shoes as England’s No 10.
Farrell has also never taken a backward step and, although he is relishing tomorrow’s showdown, he, too, refuses to buy into the concept of the stand-off battle being key. “Jonny is definitely one of, if not the best ever but you can’t put it into one-on-one battles,” he said. “He is obviously big in the way they play and controlling the game so we will have to be ready for that as a team. It is about having a joined-up game.” Saracens certainly have that this season, having added more of a cutting edge to their fearsome defence and physical work, and with England winger Chris Ashton, this season’s Heineken Cup top try-scorer with 11, they have the ideal man to finish off their improving all-court game.
The heartbeat of the team, however, is lock Steve Borthwick, and all associated with Saracens are hoping the 34-year-old former England captain can overcome a bad chest muscle injury in time to play tomorrow as he, too, is retiring at the end of the season.