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Heineken Cup: Toulon plan final hurrah for Wilkinson

Into each life some rain must fall.

Saturday's final will see Jonny Wilkinson bowing out at the top  Photograph: Getty
Saturday's final will see Jonny Wilkinson bowing out at the top Photograph: Getty

So sang The Inkspots and so thought Matt Giteau on the evening of November 21, 2009, when the rain that was teeming down from the dark sky above Murrayfield fell most heavily on his parade.

Giteau's sclaffed conversion attempt that day guaranteed Scotland a 9-8 victory over Australia just a few seconds after Ryan Cross's last-minute try had seemed to snatch it away. For that, he will always be remembered fondly in these parts, but it is worth remembering that he has a few other notable entries on his CV.

Like the fact he made his Wallabies debut before he had even played a Super Rugby match. Like the fact he would go on to appear 90 times for his country. Like the fact his salary, estimated at just short of €500,000 per year, makes him one of the highest paid players in the world. Like the fact he is on the cusp of becoming one of just a handful of players to pick up Heineken Cup winners' medals two years on the trot.

For that to happen, of course, the rather substantial obstacle called Saracens will have to be beaten at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday. The bookmakers can hardly separate the two sides, weighing Toulon's European pedigree against the fact that the occasion will feel much more like a home game for Saracens. And while Toulon are not exactly overburdened with French players, they have taken on that characteristic of French clubs (and French cars) of being a bit ropey on the road.

But there is, of course, the Jonny factor. One day short of his 35th birthday, Jonathan Peter Wilkinson will play his last game of rugby, bowing out at the top as an all-time great should. At least Giteau hopes it is at the top, for he has no plan to send his captain and close friend into retirement with a runners-up medal.

"It is incredibly important," said Giteau of his desire to help Wilkinson go out with a win. "For selfish reasons as well I would obviously like to win the title. But for a player like Jonny, who has done so much for the game in the way he has carried himself in the right light - he has never put a step wrong and he has been incredibly humble - it would mean a lot. For the region and the team, it would be great if we can send him off on the right note. He'd be embarrassed that we are talking about it because that is the player he is - he keeps himself focused on the team - but it would mean a lot to the group if we were able to send him out on the right terms."

In many eyes, Toulon peaked a year early when they collected the Heineken Cup at the Aviva Stadium last year. In the build-up, and on the day, Clermont Auvergne seemed the better side. But Toulon, often dismissed as the Galacticos of the European game, showed unsuspected levels of grit and determination, taking on the character of their captain as they clawed their way back into things and then over the line with their noses in front.

Toulon's path to last year's final included a notable away win over Saracens, but Giteau is reading nothing into that 24-12 victory. Having watched the English side smash Clermont 46-6 in this season's semi-final, he is well aware of the danger of their power game.

Giteau said: "They are more complete this year. I think defensively they were extremely strong last year and have improved again on that. They easily produced the most dominant display of this year's Heineken Cup in the semi against Clermont. No one has ever done that to Clermont and no one will probably ever do it again. It was incredibly impressive."

Some might say that Toulon's own first half against Glasgow last October would rival Saracens' humiliation of Clermont. The French side had four tries and a 34-0 lead by the end of that period, a stunning statement that they were not going to surrender their status as European champions easily. Giteau played part of that game in the centre, part at fly-half, contributed two tries and walked off with the man-of-the-match award.

It is bad news for Saracens, too, that he loves playing at the Millennium. "I've had some success there and hopefully that will continue," he said. "It is a stadium where I really enjoy playing, especially when you get the crowd singing and the roof is closed."

You wonder why he likes it nice and dry.

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