Heineken Cup Betting: Back Wilko to end as a double winner

Jonny Wilkinson . . . turned kicking from art to science
Jonny Wilkinson turned kicking from art to science

Jonny Wilkinson has announced he'll retire from rugby after two Cup finals with Toulon. Ralph Ellis forecasts a romantic, winning finish to one of sport's great stories.

"It starts with the defence of the Heineken Cup against Saracens at the Millenium Stadium on Saturday evening. Toulon are 1.865/6 favourites to win, and the one-eyed determination of Wilkinson is as good a reason as any to believe they will do it."

Can you think of another sportsman who has left a greater legacy to his game than Jonny Wilkinson? We're talking about a man who has completely transformed the way every other rugby player takes a place kick.

You know the routine. Look at the target, work out the wind; set the ball up; take four steps back, and five to the side, with the chest always pointing at the ball; crouch down; clasp hands; a little wiggle - then step forward and strike it immaculately over the posts.

When Wilko started doing that it was unique.  Now there isn't another kicker in the game who doesn't follow that technique pretty much to the letter, even if they add their own slight variation. He was the man who took the art of kicking and turned it into a science, the man who stamped the word "professional" over one of the most crucial parts of a traditionally amateur sport.

When it came to practice, he set new standards. If he gave himself a drill to put five kicks from the half-way line over the bar, he wouldn't settle for managing only four. He'd be out for as long as it took to reach perfection. He'd work on Christmas Day, on Easter Sunday, on any day, come to that, spending hours relentlessly honing that metronome consistency.

He put just as much into other parts of his game, tackling with relentless courage and able to dictate play from number ten with flair and intelligence. The numbers tell you everything about the rewards that hard work brings - some 1,246 Test points from 91 England caps and six matches for the Lions, four Six Nations titles including a Grand Slam.

And, of course, a World Cup. That one, crucial, mesmerising dropped goal in the dying seconds of the 2003 Final to beat Australia in Sydney - the moment he became to England rugby what Geoff Hurst has been to the football team.

They think it's all over? Well it is now, or at least it will be after the next two weekends when Wilkinson has the chance to bow out in style. At the age of 34 he's announced he will be hanging up his boots this summer, going out with the crescendo of two massive Cup finals with his French club Toulon and the chance to quit as a double winner.

It starts with the defence of the Heineken Cup against Saracens at the Millenium Stadium on Saturday evening. Toulon are 1.865/6 favourites to win, and the one-eyed determination of Wilkinson is as good a reason as any to believe they will do it. Sarries won't need reminding of how he demolished them almost single-handed in the semi-final last season, striking seven penalties and a drop goal.

Then seven days later is the final of the French Top 14 and a meeting with Castres at the Stade de France. The market is just forming, but it looks as if Toulon will be around about the same 1.84/5 mark to win that as well.  For sports's ultimate perfectionist, there couldn't be a more perfect way to finish.

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