Wilkinson seeks perfect end to journey
Tom Hamilton in Cardiff
May 23, 2014
Jonny Wilkinson goes through some last minute preparation © Getty Images
He was the boy who was sick before every game of mini-rugby. On Friday he was the 34-year-old who sat in front of the watching press on Friday fielding questions about his retirement and with a chance of winning a second Heineken Cup winner's medal in as many years. He is, in the words of Felipe Contepomi, "maybe the only English guy loved by all the French".
Even the seemingly unbreakable Jonny Wilkinson has to one day hang up his well-worn kicking-tee and tired boots. The balls which he gives merciless treatment to on a daily basis can finally breathe a sigh of relief.
The announcement of his retirement earlier this week was expected. Father Time waits for no man, not even Wilkinson. Even though he knew he was going to call time on his career way before Monday's 103-word statement, his preparation for the final two games of his rugby-playing existence has been as meticulous as ever. He did not leave Friday's captain's run until everything was perfect in his mind's eye.
After that and the customary photo calls came the press conference; he was the reluctant hero at the top table. As he flitted seamlessly between French and English, forever modest, he sat alongside the Heineken Cup. After 17 years, it comes down to two matches for Wilkinson, the Heineken Cup final on Welsh soil and the Top 14 finale in Paris next week. But even with virtually every question focused around the individual, they were met with answers concerning the collective whole.
"I couldn't care less about what happens to me, it's just about the team. At the beginning you try and do everything to get better, but I've been inspired by those around me and that's been the driving factor."
While Owen Farrell spoke earlier on Friday about how Wilkinson redefined the standards expected by a rugby player, Wilkinson seemed reluctant to subscribe to that. He said his mission was to leave the game in a better state than when he got there and he has certainly done that.
Last season when Saracens faced Toulon in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup, much was talked about the moment Farrell attempted to stop Wilkinson's drop-goal which made it 21-12. Wilkinson was then seen patting Farrell apologetically on the back. He described it as something similar to tennis when a player apologises for fluke shots. By his own admission, Toulon have profited from a few of those moments this season.
"We've had some lucky breaks go our way, and without those, who knows? To have the opportunity to fight again for it is amazing."
Saracens will pose a different challenge to the one Toulon faced last season. They come to the Millennium Stadium off the back of their 46-6 win over Clermont in the semi-finals.
"With regard to Saracens, individually they are a nutshell of the bigger picture. They are very strong, hugely consistent and able to go out there, no matter what the conditions, the day, the situation, and come through."
For Toulon, he feels they too have improved. "If I wasn't able to answer that in the positive [whether Toulon are better], there'd be something wrong."
Wilkinson has faced oppositions of various strengths in the past, but as he frequently referenced during the press conference, previous matches mean nothing - it is only the next one that bothers him. On Saturday against Saracens he will be given the opportunity to hammer in one half of his final chapter as a rugby player.
"What's gone on before only matters to the individual, for the team it's the next game," Wilkinson said. "I've always wanted the group to go well. Just as the same as everything else in my career, this is game is the biggest one. Hopefully there'll be an opportunity to play the next one. But as far as I'm concerned, next week doesn't exist and neither do the last however many years.
"It's down to the here and now and for that to be in a Heineken Cup final is incredible. The thought of leaving that final without a happy ending for this journey is a painful one so we will have to make sure it doesn't end like that."
Saracens will be planning otherwise; there is no sentimentality in sport, even for those who have given as much as Wilkinson.
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Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.