Jonny Wilkinson gazed deeply at the Heineken Cup as he considered Toulon’s title showdown with Clermont Auvergne in Dublin and declared: “This is all I have got to play for”.
Wilkinson, 33, is acutely aware of his rugby mortality, having seriously considered retirement in January before listening to the urges of his team-mates to sign a new one-season deal with Toulon.
So battered and bruised does he feel that Wilkinson turned down an invitation to join the British and Irish Lions squad for the tour of Australia.
Wilkinson has won Rugby World Cup, Grand Slam and Six Nations honours with England – but glory on the European club stage has escaped him.
There is a sense that victory in today’s all-French affair, no matter what Toulon manage to achieve in the Top 14 this season, would complete a stellar career.
“There is no doubt that where I stand now this is all I have got to play for,” Wilkinson said.
“That gives you a fair idea of the importance of it to me. I am playing in a one-game-at-a-time situation.
“To actually get a shot at something like this at this stage in your career is amazing. It was my first semi-final a few weeks back. This is my first final. It is a case of realising how fortunate you are to be in a group that can provide you with that opportunity and make the most of it. This is all I have got to play for now in my career and therefore it is the biggest thing I’ve got.”
Wilkinson twice tasted defeat in the Amlin Challenge Cup final and Toulon were beaten in last year’s Top 14 final by Toulouse. The two sides meet again next week at the semi-final stage.
It is 20 years since the French club won a major trophy and if they do triumph in Dublin then Wilkinson will cement his place as a cult hero on the Cote d’Azur.
Wilkinson’s performances in the quarter-final victory over Leicester and the semi-final defeat of Saracens at Twickenham propelled him onto the short-list for European Player Of The Year.
Former England coach Brian Ashton believes Wilkinson is playing the best rugby of his career. The player himself credited his team-mates and the environment at Toulon.
“I’ve never been one to think massively about form and what that means but I guess I can say that I feel good about where I am,” Wilkinson said.
“I am really enjoying the group I am with. I have been offered the opportunity to go out and be myself. I push the boat out each week and try to offer something to this team because there are a lot of guys who can offer so much as well.
“These guys are inspiring me to try and get better and better.
“I have to keep trying to get better. I am always going to try that anyway but it is great to have that environment around you that pushes you to keep searching for more from yourself.”
Wilkinson will be joined by four Englishmen in the Toulon squad today. Delon Armitage, Andrew Sheridan and Nick Kennedy are in the starting XV and Steffon Armitage is on the bench. Clermont boast Wales full-back Lee Byrne and former Scotland lock Nathan Hines in a powerful team looking to become the first unbeaten Heineken Cup winners since Toulouse in 1996. For all their attacking potency, with the likes of Wesley Fofana, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Morgan Parra in the back division, Wilkinson’s presence in the Toulon ranks heightens the need for discipline.
“Discipline is the key word to win the match,” said captain Aurelien Rougerie. “With Jonny Wilkinson and their kicking game we are going to have to be very disciplined. We are very focused and we are aware of that.
“If you want to win the Heineken Cup final, it is in the detail. We have to be very mindful in everything we do.”
Clermont Auvergne: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James, M Parra; T Domingo, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili, J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire, G Vosloo, D Chouly. Subs: T Paulo, V Debaty, C Ric, J Pierre, J Bardy, L Radosavljevic, D Skrela, R King.
Toulon: D Armitage; R Wulf, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, A Palisson; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous-Borde; A Sheridan, S Bruno, C Hayman, B Botha, N Kennedy, D Rossouw, J M Fernandez Lobbe, C Masoe. Subs: J-C Orioli, G Jenkins, D Kubriashvili, J van Niekerk, S Armitage, M Mermoz, F Michalak, J Suta.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).