Rugby

Toulon, Wilkinson delight in dismissing detractors

Toulon players celebrate after winning the final.

DUBLIN: Toulon delighted in dismissing detractors who have accused them of buying success Saturday when they were crowned European champions in a victory flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson said was as good as winning the World Cup. Plying their trade in the second tier of French rugby just five years ago, the team from the Mediterranean capped their rapid rise in Dublin when they came from behind to beat Clermont Auvergne 16-15 for their first European title.

Backed by president Mourad Boudjellal’s personal millions, the club have been ridiculed for their policy of paying high wages to international “has-beens.” A week shy of his 34th birthday, captain Wilkinson proved anything but Saturday.

The former England No. 10, who kicked all Toulon’s points in the quarterfinals and semifinals, was again flawless from the tee and was immediately asked how it compared to the famous drop goal that won the World Cup for his country 10 years ago.

“It’s right up there, in fact it sort of goes beyond because life’s in the now,” Wilkinson, competing in his first European final, told a news conference.

“It’s been hugely important, you question yourself the whole time whether you still deserve to be in teams like this and moments like this make you look at what an amazing opportunity we all have.”

So indebted to the Toulon cause is Wilkinson that he turned down the opportunity to tour with the British and Irish Lions next month to focus on the French side’s hunt for a double before using the offseason to rest his battered body.

He reiterated Saturday that all he could concentrate on was giving everything to the club and his teammates that among those starting Saturday included three fellow Englishmen, three Kiwis, two South Africans and an Australian.

Each has come with a hefty price tag, something that provides few problems for Toulon, who like many French teams including Saturday’s opponents Clermont, have an annual budget of over 20 million euros, around three times that of English league leaders Saracens.

However coach Bernard Laporte, who led France to two Six Nations grand slams before returning to the club game two years ago, said the big-spending side and in particular their experienced players now deserved some respect.

“At the beginning of the year they were the subject of a lot of criticism, but Jonny, Mathieu [Bastareaud], Matt [Giteau] they have given a lot to the younger players and this deserves respect,” the beaming, bald-headed coach said.

This may well just be the start for Toulon, too, with world class players like South African World Cup winner Bakkies Botha, Argentina captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and New Zealand’s Carl Hayman set to be joined by an array of talent next year.

Former International Rugby Board player of the year Bryan Habana and Australia’s Drew Mitchell will man the wings next season as other French teams with generous backers, like Racing Metro, also spend big on foreign players.

For Bastareaud, one of only four Frenchmen who started for Toulon Saturday, the cost of success mattered little when it came to handing their fans a first major trophy since they were last champions of France over 20 years ago.

“I think for the city it’s amazing, since 1992 they have waited. For them it’s amazing. We played with our heart for them. In Toulon, there will be a big party,” the big center said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 20, 2013, on page 13.

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