By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent
While the rest of the nation has spent a decade recalling the glory of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph, Jonny Wilkinson has been haunted by it - until now.
Wilkinson’s Heineken Cup victory with Toulon has allowed him to finally move on from Sydney 2003, to escape a shadow he felt had been cast over his career by that achievement.
Finally, there is another winner’s medal on his mantle piece.
As he sat in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night, reflecting on Toulon’s staggering 16-15 victory over Clermont Auvergne, the memories of the World Cup triumph took on a different hue.
Suddenly, Wilkinson was able to celebrate twice: to enjoy his achievements with England in a way he never had done before and revel in becoming a European champion.
“It feels good,” Wilkinson said.
“The 2003 World Cup was great but afterwards it felt like something that was almost battling me every time I stepped on the field. It felt like it was trying to show me up.
“I was part of a great England team. I sat there thinking that it was the worst feeling in the world.
“Instead of thinking ‘we’ve won it, it’s done and it’s a great thing to celebrate’ - which is what I feel more about this now - at the time I almost hated it.
“I was worrying that I had topped out at 24 and that was it. I was always so worried that it was going to be the last thing.
“I said ‘I can’t let this be the last thing, I don’t want to play under the shadow of that’.
“Before the injuries I always felt I’d been building towards something. Then a new door opened at Toulon and suddenly I’m in a final and I’ve written another chapter.
“All of a sudden you can actually start to appreciate the World Cup in a way I’ve never done.
“This campaign is done and I can actually enjoy it and appreciate it. I don’t have to start to compete with it.”
Wilkinson’s contribution to Toulon’s triumph cannot be underestimated. He did not miss a kick in the knock-out stages, landing 17 from 17 in victories of Leicester, Saracens and Clermont.
Toulon lock Nick Kennedy described Wilkinson as “absolutely phenomenal” and Delon Armitage hailed him as the best fly-half in the world.
After 48 minutes at the Aviva Stadium, when Clermont had surged into a 15-6 lead with tries from Naipolioni Nalaga and Brock James, it appeared Toulon were set for heart-break.
But they refused to concede defeat. Wilkinson landed a third penalty and then converted Armitage’s breakaway try to nudge Toulon into the head.
Armitage admitted after the game he should have run around under the posts instead of showboating as he scored his try - but such is their faith in Wilkinson’s accuracy that it never occurred to him.
After that it was all hands back to the pump in defence. Toulon made a remarkable 176 tackles to Clermont’s 66 and they held on to claim a first major trophy in 21 years.
“I didn’t expect that conversion to be the last points on the board,” Wilkinson said and they nearly weren’t but Clermont lost their composure at the death.
David Skrela, under intense pressure from Wilkinson, had a late drop-goal attempt charged down and Sitiveni Sivivatu blew their last attacking chance with a forward pass into touch.
“They were clear favourites today all around Europe and I have so much respect for the boys. We showed so much heart, especially in that last five minutes,” Kennedy said.
Toulon must now turn their attention to Friday’s Top 14 semi-final against Toulouse and the chance of a possible trophy double. The domestic title, in many ways, is more important to the fans.
Wilkinson struggles with short turnarounds now. Before the Heineken Cup final he was wondering whether he had made the right decision to play on for another year.
But on the final whistle, as he lifted the trophy having finally ended a 10-year wait for a title that would put the World Cup into some context, Wilkinson knew he had made the right decision.
“I love the idea of next year,” he said.
“Before the game I’m thinking ‘I’ve got no more in me, how much more of this can I do?’
“You put so much into the build up it becomes the last game you will ever play.
“It is only now, when you’ve played, had a shower, you think ‘I can do this again.”