England legend Jonny Wilkinson played a starring role in his final match as a professional as Toulon added the French Top 14 title to their European crown with an 18-10 victory over holders Castres on Saturday.
Wilkinson bowed out from a stunning career not only as a winner but as the most influential player on the pitch, landing Toulon’s first 15 points, including a trademark drop goal.
And the French did not miss the opportunity to pay tribute to the England legend, playing God Save the Queen over the tannoy after the final whistle.
“It’s impossible, all I can do is thank everyone in the group, the coaches, it’s incredible to explain, it’s just a pleasure,” Wilkinson told France 2.
“I’ll keep following the Top 14 because it has changed my life.
“I’ve spent half my life with a ball, it’s going to be a huge shock after rugby but I’ll have a lot of good memories with the whole of the team here.”
In truth, the match itself wasn’t a great spectacle but neither Toulon, who won their first Bouclier de Brennus since 1992, nor Wilkinson will care too much as they took revenge on Castres for their defeat in last year’s final.
And having added two European crowns and a French title in his final two seasons as a professional, Wilkinson will no doubt be delighted with his glorious farewell to the sport he graced with such distinction.
This final had been more billed as Wilkinson’s retirement than Toulon’s revenge mission and the England legend didn’t disappoint.
He took first blood in the eighth minute with a penalty after Toulon had bulldozed up to the Castres line, forcing a desperate infringement from the champions.
But on 11 minutes, Scot Max Evans ran almost the length of the field to score a stunning try and turn the final Castres’ way.
The diminutive wing took a pass from Antonie Claassen just outside his own 22 and accelerated into a gap between two Toulon defenders, jinked inside another tackle, sped clear and then chipped ahead, ostentatiously for Rory Kockott.
But as Toulon full-back Delon Armitage and Kockott challenged for the bouncing ball, both missed it and Evans followed up to touch down over the line.
There had been a hint of a possible knock-on from South African Kockott but after a long TMO break and numerous replays, referee Christophe Berdos awarded the try.
Castres had their tails up and suddenly started playing with freedom and invention, but Toulon soon started to turn the screw.
– Shades of 2003 –
The European champions put pressure on at the scrum and won a penalty, which Wilkinson converted.
Almost immediately, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe came in at the side of a ruck and Kockott kicked Castres into a 10-6 lead on 29 minutes.
Once again Toulon cranked up the pressure at the scrum and Wilkinson closed the gap to one point from the tee.
The biggest cheer of the half then greeted the former England fly-half as he set up a good attacking position with a clever kick in behind a high Castres line before landing a drop-goal with his right foot on 35 minutes.
Shades of the 2003 World Cup final and a Wilkinson speciality in his final match. It was party time.
Things got better for Toulon as despite Matt Giteau being harshly pinged for a high tackle, Kockott slipped on his run up and put the penalty wide before missing with a long-range effort on the stroke of half-time.
Wilkinson was to the fore again on 54 minutes as he landed a penalty from wide out on the right touchline after Castres collapsed a maul.
Almost immediately, Kockott, the star of last year’s final, missed his third penalty of the match, from an almost identical position to Wilkinson’s last score.
The game had turned into a turgid midfield arm-wrestle, which suited Toulon as they had the lead.
But with seven minutes left, Castres gave away a penalty for not releasing and Wilkinson handed over kicking duties to Armitage with the ball almost on halfway.
The former England full-back did not disappoint and just managed to get the length on the ball to drop it over the bar, putting Toulon more than a score ahead.
There was no way back for Castres on what was always going to be Wilkinson’s night.