A bridge too far

It proved to be one of the most dramatic of all Heineken Cup finals. The fabulous attacking game of Clermont Auvergne floundered in the face of their own demons that they could not quite conquer.

Last Updated: 20/05/13 at 13:26 Post Comment

Jonny Wilkinson's goal kicking was the difference between winning and losing

Jonny Wilkinson's goal kicking was the difference between winning and losing

For neutrals who believed their dazzling offence deserved the ultimate European rugby reward, there was a profound sense of disappointment when the final attempt to score a try to save the game fell away and the whistle blew, ending their dreams and sending Toulon into paroxysms of delight.

Clermont played most of the attractive stuff and scored two tries to Toulon's solitary breakaway but did they deserve to win? The answer is not one the sport's romantics will want to hear but it has to be a negative. Finals are about the winning of them and the best teams have to first and foremost have the mental strength to match their technical armoury, and here, Clermont fell woefully short.

The potential of Toulon eking out victory if the final remained tight was clear for all to see when Munster were outclassed for much of the semi-final, but stayed cold enough to bring those horrible mental demons into play.

Munster could not quite bring Clermont down but Toulon could and for being the stronger mental team deserved to win the match, even though the runners-up have been the best team in Europe en route to their derailment in Dublin. And it is here that mention must be made of the man voted ERC Player of the season.

Wondrous Wilkinson

Jonny Wilkinson was not the best technical player in the Heineken Cup by some distance. He was not even as influential with the ball in hand as his opposite, Brock James, in the final. What he was, however, was the toughest mental act in the tournament.

Make no mistake, Toulon won the Heineken Cup because of the Englishman. His ability to shut out the pressure and kick an extraordinary sequence of penalties against Leicester saw them nick a game they could easily have lost.

Toulon were the better team in their semi-final but again the fly-half's goal and drop kicking was the fundamental difference between winning and losing. In the final he didn't have one difficult kick (by his standards) but never did he look like missing and never did he lose his nerve. Had he been fly-half for Clermont in the final 10 minutes of the drama, he would probably have kicked two drop goals and seen his team home with something to spare.

Those detractors of his will say 'ah, but had Wilkinson been fly-half, Clermont would not have scored the tries they did and play with the panache they do.' And they are right. Wilkinson is limited in his technical aspects but unrivalled as a professional preparing for the big occasion.

Sexton's stock on the rise

This brings us to the Lions. Many a Wilkinson fan dreamed of him starting the tests and challenging Jonny Sexton for the starting role. That was never going to happen. The Irishman is far the more accomplished 10 and could indeed teach Wilkinson plenty about the position.

Yet did not Sexton himself say he would have liked Wilkinson on tour? He did and he was not spouting platitudes. Sexton wants to be the best in the world and to do that he needs to learn everything he can. Wilkinson can teach anyone about preparation and the art of practice; anyone.

He is also kicking and defending well enough to close out any game, although if he can play 80 minutes for Toulon, maybe Sexton should be considered for the full duration. The prospect of anyone other than Wilkinson replacing him in the heat of the test series is not an encouraging thought.

So 80 it must be for Sexton, who performed with utter ease in Friday night's Amlin final. I left the RDS full of respect for the fly-half and Joe Schmidt, whose stamp on his team was again obvious. Ireland have an outstanding coach.

The Lions are not going to have either Schmidt or Wilkinson. It may be that the chances of him touring disappeared the day he signed an extension on his Toulon contract. The club has been good to and for him and Wilkinson is not the sort to think selfishly about his own interests. Had he toured Australia in the wake of his gruelling end of season he would have struggled to return to Toulon's pre-season in the sort of condition he is paid to be in.

The man is rugby's consummate professional, with a clear understanding of concepts like loyalty which tend so often to disappear in the moneyed sporting world. He perhaps does not wish to say so but club comes before Lions because they are the people that pay his wages and treat him as well as they do. For such integrity alone he would deserve to be the ERC Player of the season.

Domestic deciders

The 'Big One' is over but there is still the matter of domestic trophies. Leicester play Northampton in what could be a classic encounter at Twickenham, although for that to happen I think the Saints will have to build an early lead as they did against Saracens. Leicester are playing and defending too well for that to happen.

If the Tigers dip below form, Northampton are generating the power to win but I wonder if a few of those demons that haunt Clermont might not take up residence in the Saints' skulls in the event of a close final. Leicester are the better team and should win but they cannot fall far below their best.

In Ireland, Leinster shoot for the Amlin-Rabo double against Ulster. Lions fans will be keeping a close eye on Brian O' Driscoll. So will Ulster's defence for that matter.

In the last few seasons Leinster have not returned to earth after Heineken wins to clinch the domestic leg. The Amlin is developing well but it is still not the Heineken and given a lesser or non-existent hangover they are favourites to beat Ulster, as they did in last season's Heineken final. It will be much closer this time around though. Last season I knew Ulster had no chance; that is not the case this time around. Like Leicester, Leinster have to play well to win.

Good luck to all the teams involved (and the French semi-finalists for that matter) and fingers crossed that all the Lions make the flight to Hong Kong. I head there next week and will take a break from the column but will be back in action when I touch down in Perth.

Stuart answers your emails...

Got a question for Stuart? Email him at skysportsclub@bskyb.com or use the feedback form below...

Stuart, what were you thoughts on Australia omitting Quade Cooper from their squad for the Lions series? He has been in great form for Queensland Reds - although I missed their defeat to the Cheetahs as my eyes were glued on events in Dublin! While I want a Lions whitewash I would prefer that to come against a full-strength Wallabies side. For me, that means Cooper starting at fly-half ahead of James O'Connor.
John Wood

STUART REPLIES: John, I am disappointed Cooper is not in the squad (although some extras are yet to be added) but you cannot really say they are not full strength without him if the coach deems him unsuitable. If he is fit and Deans does not want him, well that is different to say, George Smith being injured. Count your blessings, John.

Stuart, what are your thoughts on Saturday's Aviva Premiership final? Leicester certainly have the experience, although they have lost the two deciders. Do you think they'll avoid an unwanted treble and ensure Geordan Murphy's final act as Tigers captain is to lift the Premiership trophy?
Patrick Lowell

STUART REPLIES: I touch on this in the column and wrote a preview in the Sunday Times. I think Leicester will win and win well.

Stuart, it was great to see Niall Morris' form for Leicester recognised by Ireland, even if he has to settle for a place among the 'Emerging' squad that travels to Georgia instead of the senior tour of North America. However, it was equally disappointing to see Gareth Steenson overlooked after such a fine season for Exeter. Jonny Sexton and Ian Madigan are our two best fly-halves, but surely Steenson should be ahead of Paddy Jackson on current form?
Hugh Gilmartin

STUART REPLIES: On current form I agree but on current form he could be said to be unlucky not to be ahead of Owen Farrell. Current form is not the be all and end all of selection. If Gareth keeps his form for the first few months of next season, then it will get interesting.

Stuart, after the Six Nations Leigh Halfpenny looked a nailed-on starter for the Lions at full-back, but Rob Kearney has closed the gap in recent weeks. Could he snatch the No 15 jersey, or should the quality of opposition Leinster have faced in the Amlin Challenge Cup be taken into account?
Jonathan Murchie

STUART REPLIES: Jonathan, Halfpenny was my player of the Six Nations but never nailed on in my books for the Lions because I think Kearney is an even better player when they are both at the peak of their game. Saying the Amlin lacks quality is all well and good but the same can be said about the Six Nations, where the quality of the rugby only occasionally would have caused concern for Robbie Deans.

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