Wilkinson set for final Twickenham challenge

Jonny Wilkinson will lead Toulon in their hunt for a first trophy in 20 years when they face French rivals Biarritz in the Amlin Challenge Cup final at the Twickenham Stoop on Friday.

Wilkinson remains a pivotal figure for Toulon despite having called time on his 91-cap England career in December after scoring almost 2,000 Test points.

“It’s a joy to get back to England to play, especially just across the road from headquarters,” said Wilkinson, who will be 33 next week.

“I have always enjoyed playing at the Twickenham Stoop. It’s a great ground, and it is also the area where I grew up as a kid.

“We have been going about our business game in, game out, and you never know where it is going to take you. This week, we have an opportunity to play in a final.

“You have got to make the most of it, and that is certainly what I will be doing.”

Wilkinson, whose previous club honours were the 1998 English Premiership titles and two Powergen Cup victories (2001, 2004) with Newcastle, is in top form, and booted 27 points in Toulon’s gripping 32-29 semi-final win over Stade Francais, notably landing a decisive trademark drop-goal just 45 seconds from time.

“It’s a different way of life in France, and that kind of transposes itself in the way the game is played. It has been a joy for me, but it is tough to put into words,” he added.

“We know we have had to prepare well for this game. Biarritz are a team that has shown its calibre in Europe many, many times.

“And what I have learnt from playing in France is that teams are able to turn a game in a second.

“You might be down the other team’s end of the field and you think everything is quiet, then suddenly you are under your own posts and the game has changed.

“You have got to be switched on the whole time.”

Wilkinson added that the 2010 final, when Toulon lost 28-21 to Cardiff in Marseille had been “tough to take, watching it slip by during the last 10 minutes”.

“But the great thing about rugby is that it gives you a chance to get on your feet and have another go.”

Toulon’s South African skipper Joe van Niekerk was in no doubt at how pivotal Wilkinson had become at the southern Mediterranean club, bankrolled by outspoken comic book magnate Mourad Boudjellal and coached by Bernard Laporte.

“The guy is very influential in our team,” the former Springbok said.

“He is one of those players who only comes round every 10 years, if that. To have him in our team is exceptional.”

Although the final will be between two French clubs, for the fifth time since the tournament’s inception in 1997, there will be a host of international players on show on Friday.

Ex-England full-back Ian Balshaw, part of the 2003 World Cup-winning squad alongside Wilkinson, and Zimbabwe-born US international Takudzwa Ngwenya feature for a Biarritz side captained by France No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy.

Wilkinson and Van Niekerk are joined in Toulon’s ranks by Australian playmaker Matt Giteau, Samoan-born winger David Smith, ex-All Black prop Carl Hayman, Wales prop Eifion Lewis-Roberts, and English forwards Steffon Armitage and Kris Chesney.

Match Officials
: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant Referees: David Pearson, JP Doyle (England)
TMO: Iain Ramage (Scotland)
Citing Commissioner: Denis Templeton (Ireland)
TV: Sky Sports / FR4 / Sky Italia


Biarritz Olympique: I Balshaw; T Ngwenya, J Barraque, D Traille, D Haylett-Petty; J Peyrelongue, D Yachvili; Y Watremez, A Heguy, E Van Staden, J Thion, P Taele, W Lauret, B Guyot, I Harinordoquy [capt]

Replacements: B August, S Marconnet, F Gomez Kodela, E Lund, T Gray, M Bosch, C Gimenez, I Bolakoro

Toulon: B Lapeyre; A Palisson, M Bastareaud, M

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