Farrell & Wilko go head-to-head
Farrell & Wilko go head-to-headSHARE
England's past, present and future will be on show when flyhalves Jonny Wilkinson and Owen Farrell face one another in a European Cup semifinal between Toulon and Saracens at Twickenham on Sunday.
Farrell was only 11-years-old when Wilkinson kicked the decisive drop-goal in England's World Cup Final win against Australia in 2003.
But the Saracens star now finds himself wearing the England No.10 shirt that Wilkinson wore with such distinction in 91 Tests before retiring from national service two years ago.
"Jonny is someone I respect massively. He set the standard and pushed the bar right up as far as flyhalves are concerned," said Farrell.
"And he's still doing that today, not just by the way he is on the field but by the way he is off it as well.
"He's an unbelievable player who works so hard to get to where he needs to be. Everyone wants to follow in his footsteps.
"Not only does he control the game and everyone knows about the work he puts into his kicking, but he smashes people as well.
"He gets stuck in and puts his hands up for the team. A lot of people respect him for that."
Farrell's committed approach to rugby has long been compared to that of Wilkinson – and it was a comparison England's record points scorer was happy to endorse on Friday.
"I had the good fortune to meet Owen at a young age at the 2007 World Cup. I saw even at that young age that he had what I had – I realised he had 10 years to play with it," Wilkinson recalled.
"It's great to see someone who covers every area. He steps up and kicks a goal, then makes a tackle and then takes responsibility to make a call."
The similarities between Farrell and Wilkinson also extend to their respective clubs.
In the early years of professional rugby union, Saracens – then as now bankrolled by businessman Nigel Wray – became known for signing such leading players as Australia's Michael Lynagh, France's Philippe Sella and South Africa great Francois Pienaar.
That led to charges they were a 'team of stars, not a star team' and it wasn't until 2011 they were crowned champions of England for the first time.
Toulon, who like Saracens are bidding for a maiden European Cup crown, now face the same accusations with the wealth of owner Mourad Boudjellal, who made his fortunes in comics, helping the French side sign the likes of Wilkinson, New Zealand's Carl Heyman and South Africa's Danie Rossouw.
However, it is 20 years since Toulon won a trophy and last season they were beaten in the Final of both France's Top 14 domestic championship and the European Challenge Cup.
This term they have a Top 14/European Cup double in their sights and flanker Steffon Armitage, who together with brother and ex-England full-back Delon is another member of Toulon's extensive 'foreign legion' is determined the club will end its long wait for silverware.
"We want to show everyone we are a team and there is no better way than by winning this competition," Armitage said.
"That will prove to everyone we are not just a bunch of mercenaries, a bunch of rock stars but we are a team of winners.
"Last year we came close twice. The supporters were devastated. There were people crying, people had mortgaged their homes to come and see us play. It was heartbreaking and we don't want that to happen again."
The winners of Sunday's match will take on the victors of Saturday's first semifinal, between Clermont and Munster, in a Final at Dublin's Lansdowne Road on May 18.