It was not the spectacular final that we had hoped would serve as a fitting epitaph for a tournament that has thrilled so many for so long – but Toulon will not care. The Rouge et Noir are champions of Europe again and join an elite club of back-to-back winners that also includes Leicester and Leinster.
It is a fine achievement for a side often branded as a group of rugby mercenaries that have supposedly been lured by the promise of untold riches and the Mediterranean sunshine. As persuasive as those elements are, make no mistake, this is not just a group of insanely talented individuals but a unified team.
Money may have brought this star-studded squad together but a team to rival any in Europe has since emerged with a fierce work ethic and boasting an unyielding determination not to let each other down. That desire is a credit to the culture created within the club by coach Bernard Laporte and his staff and it is fuelled by a rugby-mad town. That unstinting support has propelled the side to great heights and laid the foundations of a rugby dynasty.
In return the players are lauded as gods and in their eyes there is no greater deity in the supporters’ eyes than Jonny Wilkinson. The fly-half was in majestic mood on his final appearance on British soil ahead of his retirement at the end of the season and he cemented his place as one of the all-time greats with a vintage kicking display including two penalties, two conversions and a sweetly-struck drop goal off his ‘wrong’ foot.
He didn’t miss a kick or a step all day and his withdrawal a few moments from full time allowed a bumper crowd at the Millennium Stadium, including many neutrals, to pay tribute and thank him for what he has given the Game in the past 17 years.
But Wilkinson was only one part of a brutally efficient Toulon side that handed out a lesson in big game rugby to a Saracens side that is not quite the finished article. Defeat will come hard to a side that to this point has not been short of belief and for good reason having set the bar in the Premiership. They were understandably distraught at the final whistle having done little wrong on their way to this one-sided result but they must rediscover their swagger in the next week before their Premiership final date with a Northampton Saints side finishing the season like a train.
Sarries boss Mark McCall and his assistants have their work cut out to breathe fresh life back into the ‘Wolfpack’ but they, like Toulon, benefit from an enviable spirit that will serve them well in the coming days.
The video analysis will underline the fact that Toulon dominated them on a shocking pitch that will also – thankfully – be history at the end of the season. A Sarries side that had displayed such brutal efficiency in defence and ingenuity in attack during their spectacular semi-final victory over Clermont Auvergne, were smothered by a Toulon side clearly fired up for the occasion.
Saracens tried to stamp their authority on the game but got little change out of Toulon. A telling point came midway through the first half when a crunching tackle from Toulon hooker Craig Burden on his Saracens counterpart Schalk Brits not only floored his usually livewire rival but also appeared to knock the stuffing out of their entire side. However, they walked a fine line at times in terms of their physicality – with Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe arguably lucky to only see yellow having pulled Saracens’ Alistair Hargreaves to the ground as he fielded a high ball.
Burden’s bone-crunching industry led to an earlier than expected departure through an apparent injury but Toulon were not short of warriors. Juan Smith, whose career was supposedly done and dusted not too long ago, rolled back the years with an heroic effort but he was pipped to the Man of the Match honour by flanker Steffon Armitage.
It remains a mystery as to how England can continue to ignore a player of Armitage’s talents even if they have relative strength in their back-row. We are told only ‘exceptional circumstances’ will prompt the selection of player plying his trade overseas but you can’t help but think England would be a better side with him in their ranks.
Centre Matt Giteau must have given Armitage a run for his money. In a game bereft of crowd-pleasing skill, the former Australia international helped conjure the opening try of the game with what looked like a sublime set move with Wilkinson and winger Drew Mitchell taking supporting roles.
Like Wilkinson and Smith, Giteau is another to have found a new lease of life in Toulon and according to his No.10 he is ‘a damn good player’ and ‘the ultimate professional’. This game-changing contribution was no one-off and in the form of his life and still just 31-years-old, you must also wonder whether the Wallabies were a little premature in drawing a line under his international career.
A well-worn cheque book has not only bought Toulon big names but also invaluable experience. The game was slipping away from Saracens in the second half but they still had 20 minutes left to perhaps conjure the two tries they required to turn the game on its head.
But a wayward arm from fly-half Owen Farrell brushed Toulon’s Bryan Habana as he chased a kick ahead and the Springbok winger fell to the ground. It was clear Habana could have stayed on his feet but aware of the state of the game and field position he played his desperate rival and the result was a final three points for Wilkinson and the final nail in Saracens’ euro hopes.
It was a painful reminder that while Farrell is an accomplished fly-half with a formidable skillset, he remains a work in progress. The semi-final defeat to a Wilkinson-inspired Toulon last season was supposed to have been a turning point but 12 months on he remains in his rival’s shadow. But the England No.10 can continue to learn from Wilkinson if, as hinted by England boss Stuart Lancaster, his input is invited ahead of the 2015 Rugby World Cup.
As captain Wilkinson lifted the trophy before he too was also hoisted aloft by his team-mates who you sense would have happily carried him all the way home to the south of France, such is their respect for him.There was a rare flicker of emotion from the ice-cool fly-half and a broad smile filled his face. For a moment, there ‘really was no next week’ as the intensely focused Wilkinson had insisted in the build-up to the Cardiff finale.
But within minutes it was business as normal. Asked about his latest achievement in front of the TV cameras, his competitive spirit betrayed him and he admitted his mind was already contemplating the Top 14 showdown with Castres in Paris next weekend.
That is why he is Jonny Wilkinson
What were your thoughts on the Heineken Cup Final? Will Saracens bounce back in the Premiership Final?