Are Toulon better without Sir Jonny?
April 24, 2014
Jonny Wilkinson's stellar career could come to an end this season as he is yet to sign a new contract © Getty Images
The man they call 'Sir Jonny' is the face of Toulon and last season he led them to their first major trophy in more than two decades but whisper it quietly, they might be a better team when he's not on the pitch.
The ultimate crunch time performer, Wilkinson was flawless from the kicking tee in the knockout stages of last year's Heineken Cup with a perfect 16 from 16 as Toulon won their first European title.
But ahead of a last four clash with Munster, Toulon's best run of form of the season has coincided with the injury-enforced absence of their talisman.
Sacrilegious as it sounds, there is a very real case for leaving Wilko - now recovered from a hamstring injury - on the sidelines for what promises to be an epic encounter at the Vélodrome in Marseille.
A close look at Toulon's results this season in the Top 14 makes for interesting reading, with the league leaders proving much more threatening with either Matt Giteau or Frédéric Michalak at fly-half.
When Wilkinson has been on the field they have scored 31 tries in 1343 minutes, an average of a try about every 43 minutes, in his absence, their tries (21 of them) have come at just over 31 minutes a pop.
Of course there is a lot more to rugby than scoring tries - as Toulon showed in winning the Heineken Cup last year - but even when it comes to points scored, they average a point more (26.1) when he's not the starter.
Wilkinson led Toulon to Heineken Cup glory last year © Getty Images
The recent back-to-back wins on the road in Bordeaux and Barcelona against Perpignan were also their first consecutive away successes in the league since September 2012 putting them in pole position to finish the regular season top of the table for the first time since their return to the elite.
The recent form has been enough to earn high praise from former France and Toulouse skipper Fabien Pelous who admits he doesn't think any team can compete with Toulon in either France or Europe.
So is that enough to justify leaving Wilkinson on the bench on Sunday? Well it seems unlikely with Bernard Laporte at the helm.
Firstly because Toulon have been better defensively with Wilkinson on the pitch than not, and secondly because Laporte has been on the receiving end enough times to know not to doubt his iconic fly-half.
In fact in the quarter-finals Laporte dropped Michalak from his matchday squad altogether despite impressive displays against Clermont and Toulouse, only for Wilkinson to be forced off early and Giteau to slot in at ten to lead his side past Leinster.
The Australian performed the role to perfection as he has each time he's been called upon this season, and whether it is at 10 or 12, there is no doubt that Giteau is now the man who runs the Toulon backline.
While Wilkinson's passing game has often been underrated by his detractors, it is still the former Wallaby who is the creative fulcrum opening up the gaps.
In the last month the enigmatic Michalak has taken on that role after finally recovering from a troublesome shoulder injury that had hampered him in the early stages of the season, most notably in a woeful display against Stade Francais last November.
Clearly enjoying his rugby again, Michalak was in magical form last weekend against Perpignan and looks to be bursting with confidence.
That might be enough to earn him a spot on the bench this time around against Munster but surely not a starting role.
For Wilkinson knows how to perform in the big moments, as he proved once again last year.
But in this, almost certainly his final season, there have been games that he's let slip. Away in Grenoble he missed the conversion with the final kick that would have drawn the game, while in Toulouse two penalties and a drop goal went astray in a one-point loss in admittedly difficult kicking conditions.
A loss to newcomers Oyonnax when he missed a last-second drop goal and the home defeat to Grenoble where his pass was intercepted for the winning score will also stick in the mind of a perfectionist like Wilkinson.
And yet despite a few slip-ups there is no way the Jonny story in Toulon can end with him on the bench. Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal is still trying to persuade his star to play on for another year, and Laporte will surely not be able to do without Wilkinson's cast-iron defence and usually impeccable kicking.
It would be a brave man to doubt the 34-year-old as he prepares for a final flourish to his playing career, but the fact this debate even exists is perhaps reason enough to believe the time is right for him to be calling it a day.
Then again, knowing Wilkinson, it's probably right about now that he will find his best goal-kicking form to help Toulon to an historic double.
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