The clock said 1.25am. The Stade de France was empty and the cauldron of noise and colour that had filled it earlier in the evening was now just a vibrant memory.
The ground staff were collecting the final pieces of gold confetti that had greeted Toulon’s long-awaited Top 14 triumph – an 18-10 victory over Castres – and the local RER train line that had ferried many fans to and from the stadium had long since fallen silent. But Jonny Wilkinson was still going strong in the bowels of the stadium, responding to seemingly endless media demands and determined to give his all – as he has always done.
It was a triumph that he was even standing after an emotionally and physically draining night. The evening had started with one final, long and lonely warm-up, if you do not count the constant presence of a camera, a capacity crowd and millions watching on TV. The Toulon captain then issued a rallying cry to a side packed with big names, all wearing shirts stitched with ‘Merci Jonny’ and all desperate to honour their brightest star in what was to be his last appearance for the Rouge et Noir.
In a game that largely failed to live up to the drama provided by the army helicopter that delivered the Bouclier de Brennus in the most dramatic fashion ahead of kick off, Wilkinson delivered a typical all-action display. Controlled, powerful and precise. We witnessed yet another kicking masterclass, including four penalties and yet another drop goal off his right boot, while Castres’ Rory Kockott struggled to find the same level of composure and performance.
The final whistle brought unbridled joy and Wilkinson was lost under his team-mates and wave after wave of affection rippling down from the stands. You doubt whether a capacity crowd at Twickenham could have given him a greater send-off. Put simply, they adore him across the Channel.
So much so, that the stadium announcer invited ‘Sir’ Jonny Wilkinson to collect the trophy and the crowd would later endorse the call for a knighthood by singing along to ‘God Save The Queen’. Surreal and then some.
His near-perfect French and willingness to assimilate has clearly won him legions of supporters that extend far beyond the rugby-mad town that he chose to make his home five years ago. Castres’ fans refused to flee the stadium having seen their side’s unlikely quest for back-to-back titles ended in clinical fashion.
The significance of the occasion was not lost on them and they waited patiently to salute Wilkinson as he made one final lap of honour that was punctuated by handshakes, hugs and photos with team-mates, a President, a Prince, rival players, fans and even officials.
A special embrace was reserved for Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal, whose nerves had given way to tears and then joy in the closing moments of the game. He clearly owes a great deal to his side’s talisman, we all do, but Wilkinson in turn would no doubt credit the outspoken Boudjellal for breathing life into his career with an offer of a fresh start in the south of France.
Wilkinson made a point of acknowledging each member of the Toulon support staff and special praise is due for assistant coaches Pierre Mignoni and Jacques Delmas. Denied the match-day presence of head coach Bernard Laporte for the latter stages of the season following an ill-advised outburst aimed at a referee, the focus fell on Mignoni and Delmas. But they met that challenge, so successfully that Laporte opted to remain in the background for last weekend’s Heineken Cup final victory and this game even when French officials lifted his suspension.
While others battled to get to Wilkinson, he fought to find his wife Shelly and parents, Phil and Philippa, and together they savoured one final great day. But perhaps unsurprisingly for someone so focused on the challenge ahead, Wilkinson felt unable to wallow in his side’s hard-earned triumph and is wary of the void that will be left in his life.
“It’s tough,” he explained. “Part of you is desperate to jump up and down and run around and shout as it is such a great day but something is holding me back. I am not deliberately sitting back and thinking ‘take it easy’, I’m wondering what the hell am I going to do now.
“It’s a scary time. It happens to everyone, and everyone needs to understand that your time runs out and we don’t all get the chance to go out on a good moment.”
The recent confirmation that Wilkinson will join the Toulon coaching staff next season, in a part-time role, will ease the transition but you wonder whether a bit-part will be suitably rewarding? You sense he is an all or nothing kind of guy and he may well be frustrated by the limitations of such a role.
“I have been very privileged, I’m very honoured and I now need to find my place in life,” added Wilkinson.
Boudjellal would no doubt welcome the opportunity to make Wilkinson as permanent a fixture as the statue he has long planned in his honour. But some have suggested that Boudjellal may also step back? A Top 14 title drought dating back to 1992 is now over and they are the first side since Toulouse back in 1996 to complete a league and Heineken Cup double.
Time will tell if Boudjellal has the desire to spearhead the next challenge facing Toulon – to go from successful side to dynasty. Plans for next season are well in hand with a headline-grabbing recruitment policy having already secured the services for Wales’ Leigh Halfpenny from next season.
The clock crept nearer and nearer to 2am. Despite an epic shift on and off the field, Wilkinson was showing few signs of fatigue as the sound of his team-mates celebrating drifted through the media interview zone.
But Toulon team manager Tom Whitford had seen enough and he stepped in to rescue his No.10 from his own analysis. It was time to celebrate a glorious victory and the end of a great career.
What were your thoughts on the game and on Jonny’s final bow?