Wilkinson swansong overshadows revenge Top 14 final
Paris: Jonny Wilkinson will step onto the field as a professional rugby player for the last time on Saturday in an event that will overshadow the Top 14 final between his club Toulon and champions Castres.
French club rugby`s biggest domestic prize may be on offer but it will pale in comparison with the magnitude of Wilksinon`s last hurrah.
The 35-year-old already had a taste of what awaits him a week earlier with his final appearance on British soil in the successful defence of Toulon`s European Cup title at Cardiff`s Millennium Stadium, where Saracens were put to the sword 23-6.
Wilkinson was cheered as much, if not more, than the French champions during and after that match and despite the importance of Saturday`s game to the domestic French fans, Wilkinson will likely once again dominate the headlines.
Even his opposite number at the Stade de France on Saturday, Castres fly-half Remi Tales, is full of admiration for Wilkinson.
"What makes him stand out is his game management. He gives his team a lift by finding the diagonals whenever there`s an open space," said Tales.
"He can do everything and he also has drop goals in his armoury. When you`re defending and he penalises you with three points, that hurts.
"I`m lucky to be playing against him in his last match, it`s a great honour."
For iconic fly-half Wilkinson, it will bring down the curtain on a stunning career topped off by his last-gasp winning drop-goal to land England their only World Cup victory to date, against hosts Australia in 2003.
This will be Wilkinson`s seventh final since joining big-spending Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal`s outfit in 2009.
And Boudjellal is determined his side will give Wilkinson the send off he deserves.
"We cannot mess it up. We have given hope to plenty of people and we must not disappoint them. And then it will be Jonny Wilkinson`s final match.
"I don`t know if this will be the biggest trophy that we win at Toulon but it will be the most moving."
Toulon reached their zenith with last season`s historic first European Cup triumph, and followed it up with this season`s repeat triumph.
But in between, they actually lost the last Top 14 final to Castres.
"With all the respect I have for Castres, we cannot fail," added Boudjellal.
"We are fully aware that last year we underestimated Castres and that they are a team who deserve to be taken seriously."
The reigning champions come into this match as the under-dogs for the second year in a row -- also facing the newly crowned European champions for the second time in succession.
While Castres`s shock 19-14 victory last season provided a welcome changing of the guard, for South African scrum-half Rory Kockott`s team to repeat that feat and deny Wilkinson a glorious send-off would be something of a travesty.
Were Toulon to win, Wilkinson`s CV would have more of the feel his celebrity status and iconic image deserves, with a World Cup, two European Cups and titles in both England and France -- a palmares befitting one of the game`s greats.
Yet should Castres upset the odds again it will be an even greater shock than a year ago, and an ironic one at that.
Castres came close to missing out on the play-offs altogether as they lost their final match of the season at relegation-threatened Bayonne.
Stade Francais looked set to deny them sixth spot as they led 10-3 at half-time in Toulon.
But a second-half turnaround from the European champions, giving them a 17-15 victory, gave Castres a stay of execution, which they exploited by ending Clermont`s 77-match winning home run in the quarter-finals before beating Montpellier in the semi-finals.
Already, last year, they became the first team in the Top 14 era to win the title having finished outside the top three in the regular season.
If they were to win it this time, they would beat their own record of the lowest regular season finisher -- currently fourth -- to win the title.
Only once before, in 2011 when Montpellier lost to Toulouse, has a side finished sixth and gone on to make the final.