Heineken Cup puts Wilkinson in spotlight again
Ten years after kicking England to World Cup glory, Jonny Wilkinson takes centre stage again as underdogs Toulon take on fellow Top 14 powerhouse Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup final on Saturday.
Flyhalf Wilkinson outshone Owen Farrell by kicking all of his team's points in their 24-12 semifinal win against Saracens at Twickenham and was tipped as a late addition to Warren Gatland's British and Irish Lions squad.
Wilkinson, however, turned the opportunity down, preferring to focus on Toulon's final few games then use the off-season to rest his battered body.
The decision was welcomed by his club teammates, with France centre Mathieu Bastareaud telling the France 2 television channel the decision "sums him up", while others were happy he was available for the clash in Dublin.
"Jonny has finished my World Cup hopes many times and I want to hate the guy, but he is great for the team," Australian teammate Matt Giteau told the competition's official website (www.ercrugby.com). "He shows a lot of leadership on the field."
The 33-year-old, who often spends up to two hours after training to practice his individual skills, has been plagued by injury throughout his career but is not giving Toulon coach Bernard Laporte any such concerns.
Laporte's only injury niggle is whether Danie Rossouw had shaken off a knee injury and the former France coach said on Tuesday he expected the South African to be "okay" and a decision would be made on his availability on Thursday.
Despite their strong season, Toulon's outspoken president Mourad Boudjellal said he is preparing to lose the all-French affair.
"We are up against a very impressive team," Boudjellal told local media.
"We should be stupid to think we are better than Clermont. So we are preparing to lose. We will be the runners up and it's not that bad."
Boudjellal's downcast outlook was ignored by Toulouse coach Guy Noves, who led his team to victory in the three previous all-French finals in the Heineken Cup, because of the influence of the 2003 World Cup winning flyhalf and players like Giteau.
"Toulon are less spectacular, but (Jonny) Wilkinson is very important for them and there are other players such as (Matt) Giteau who can take control of a match," he told Midi Olympique.
Clermont and Toulon, who finished the regular season in first and second place respectively in the Top 14, met twice this term.
They drew 26-26 in Toulon after Clermont's 24-21 home win earlier in the season.
Clermont assistant coach Franck Azema prefers to focus on Saturday's game, however, with both teams set to play in their first Heineken Cup final.
"We must focus only on ourselves and take our fates in our won hands," Azema told a news conference on Tuesday.
"But Toulon have players who have experienced this kind of moments," he added in an obvious reference to Wilkinson.
Clermont coach Vern Cotter will once again rely on the power of Wesley Fofana and Sitiveni Sivivatu, who tore the Munster defence open in their 16-10 semifinal win.
Aurelien Rougerie (thigh), Gerhard Vosloo (thigh) and Daniel Kotze (back), however, are doubtful because of injuries.
Frenchman Raphael Ibanez, who won the competition with London Wasps in 2007, said the final will be one to remember.
"This final will be fantastic - especially since it will take place in Dublin, under the eyes of the players of Leinster who dominated this competition for several years," the former France captain told the ERC website.
"It will be very interesting to follow events this week with what will be a game of chess in the tactical approaches between Bernard Laporte and Vern Cotter.
"But it really is impossible to forecast who will be European champions on Saturday."