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Wilkinson to go out in style in final steps

Jonny Wilkinson will today play on British soil for the last time as he leads Toulon into the final of the Heineken Cup against Saracens at the Millennium Stadium.

The showpiece forms part of the fly-half's farewell tour as his illustrious career nears its conclusion.

England's 2003 World Cup final match-winner will bow out for good after next week's French Top 14 final in Paris, with Toulon to face Castres. It will likely feel like a natural end for a player who turns 35 tomorrow, since Wilkinson has already retired from international duty after amassing 91 England caps and more than 1000 Test points.

The Heineken Cup final is significant for the French club, although the sight of an Englishman booting Toulon over the line would afford one of rugby's greats a fittingly emotional farewell. "He is an exceptional player; you could talk about him forever," said Bernard Laporte, the Toulon head coach.

"Players like him only come around once in a generation. Once, after [France] lost against England at Twickenham, I said we have [Zinedine] Zidane, and they have Wilkinson. I was right. It is a pleasure to have him. He is a perfectionist, but he is always asking questions as if he is starting out in the game."

Wilkinson announced his retirement earlier this week having resolved that he had come to the end of his career path. "It is something I felt I had to do; I feel relieved that I have announced it," he said. "I have always been about the team, for the group to do well. It simply comes down to the here and now and for the here and now to be a Heineken Cup final is incredible. But the thought of leaving the final without a happy ending to this journey is a painful one, so we've got to do everything we can to try to make sure it doesn't end like that."

Should he be among those holding the trophy later today then Wilkinson may be given pause to reflect on his impact on the sport. He will see also the faces of his team-mates and coaches and the veteran has also acknowledged the impression that those at his club and their opponents have had on him.

"I have tried to get better and push my own boundaries but the guys around me, from what I've seen, I haven't been close to touching the levels or the talent of the guys I've played with, and a lot of the guys I've played against," he added. "I have been trying to keep up more than anything, throughout my career, and no more so than at the moment. You do everything you can to get better, but at the end of the day I have been inspired by those around me."

Wilkinson, who yesterday faced a packed press conference room at the Millennium Stadium, also paid tribute to opponents Saracens. He noted too the career of Saracens captain Steve Borthwick, who also retires in eight days.

"I have known Steve for a long time and he's been inspirational. He has never compromised his values, his desires, his drive," said Wilkinson. "All the values that sum up rugby brilliantly, he has got them in hordes. Underneath it all, it is the strength and values of a man that really count."

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