Jonny Wilkinson’s importance to Toulon shone through yet again as he booted them to a 24-16 Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Munster in Marseille.
On a day when two former Popes were canonised, a banner in the Stade Velodrome crowd called for Wilkinson to be given a rugby sainthood for his brilliance on the pitch.
The English out-half converted six of his seven penalty attempts and also dropped a first half goal to leave the French club just one win away from retaining their European title.
It could prove to be a fairytale finish to Wilkinson’s career as the May 24 final against Saracens in Cardiff comes on the eve of his 35th birthday.
“It was a hell of a game. You’re just in danger everywhere on the field because you give away a penalty, you turn the ball over.. .five points was just not enough, at the end the eight was almost not enough, it’s just relentless,” said a relieved Wilkinson afterwards.
“Munster go for you and even in defence, they hold you up and they’ve got so much technique and power up their sleeves. They’ve got good speed and skills.
“Today was a game where we had to cover everything and be switched on and it takes your energy away.”
Wilkinson kicked 15 points and fellow Englishman Delon Armitage weighed in with a 55-metre penalty on the stroke of half-time to give the hosts a 18-9 interval lead.
Despite trailing from start to finish, Munster dug deep in their bid to overhaul Toulon in an absorbing second period.
Ian Keatley converted Simon Zebo’s 53rd-minute try to add to his three earlier penalties, but Wilkinson’s opposite number missed a long range penalty to put them ahead and they were hampered by Keith Earls’ subsequent sin-binning.
Wilkinson, who decisively split the posts in the 65th and 80th minutes, will come up against the current holder of the England number 10 jersey – Owen Farrell – in next month’s decider.
Farrell helped Saracens demolish Clermont Auvergne 46-6 in their semi-final at Twickenham, the same venue where Wilkinson kicked Toulon past Sarries in the last four 12 months ago.
Asked about the rematch, he said: “We didn’t get a chance to see the Saracens game (yesterday), but we’ve heard nothing but great stuff about them. They’re top of the English league, they’re consistent, aggressive and have the skills.
“To beat Clermont by that sort of score is unheard of. There’s an enormous amount of respect there (for them). It’s a big end to the season for both teams and we just want to try and end it on the right note.”
Wilkinson’s opposite number Ian Keatley was “absolutely gutted” that Munster have now suffered back-to-back Heineken Cup semi-final defeats in France.
Ruing the errors that allowed Wilkinson to keep Toulon in the ascendancy, Keatley admitted: “We didn’t do all the things that we said we would do. We gave them a few penalties and easy ‘outs’.
“When they kicked off to us, we didn’t exit well. I think we managed to give away six or nine points just from not getting out of our danger area.
“They kept the scoreboard ticking over with Jonny. We knew he was going to be immense with the boot and he did it again today.”
Munster head coach Rob Penney, who is moving to Japan at the end of the current campaign, pointed to those costly penalties that left his side with an uphill task.
“We just couldn’t control possession well enough. We made too many errors. We were thinking we were finishing over the top of them (in the second half) but it just wasn’t to be,” said the New Zealander.
“We’ll look over this game and it will be a bit ugly to watch – we were our own worst enemies today which is really unfortunate. The guys tried hard but we just weren’t clinical enough.”
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