Jonny Wilkinson has given Exeter Chiefs a ringing endorsement as a growing force not only within the English game, but also that of Europe after he tackled the Devon club for the first time at Sandy Park on Saturday.
The Toulon skipper landed a penalty and drop-goal in his side’s narrow 14-9 Heineken Cup victory – a result which lifted the French superstars back to the summit of Pool Two.
However, the World Cup winner was quick to praise the resistance put up by the Chiefs, who head to the South of France this coming weekend for the return fixture at the Stade Felix Mayol.
“It was a tough game, but we expected that,” said the 34-year-old playmaker. “It’s fabulous to see the way they [Exeter] are playing the game and the strength that they are able to compete and beat so many teams.
“I think last year a lot of people mentioned when they played Clermont what a battle they put up, but it’s no longer about that for them. These guys are beating teams day in, day out and playing great rugby in doing that. It’s a magic thing for English rugby and an example for people to follow. What they are showing for 1 to 15, they’ve guys with skills and playing in that manner, it’s just great and something to learn from.
“As a team I know we will learn from what they are doing and we grow stringer because the way they play is hard to play against. It’s great for us, great for Europe and great for what they are doing down here. Coming here today, it’s a fabulous place, fabulous support and long may it continue.”
And with the two teams set to resume Heineken Cup battle again this weekend, Wilkinson is expecting another stiff examination from Rob Baxter’s side on home soil.
“We know we have to prepare damn well to play against them,” said Wilkinson, who was named European Player of the Year last season. “We’ve seen first hand today what what the Chiefs are capable of and maybe if a few ball didn’t go down or the rub of the green went slightly different, we know we would have been in a very different situation right now.
“Right now we’ll take each game as it comes, but these guys will be incredibly tough next week. Then whoever they face after that, it’s impossible to say who is going to qualify from this group. Like I said, today could easily have been a different story, so I wouldn’t like to be doing this again.”
With Toulon next, then European dates with Glasgow Warriors (home) and Cardiff Blues (away), there is still plenty for the Chiefs to play for as the Heineken heads towards the final straight of the pool stages.
Likewise, Toulon and Wilkinson still have plenty of hurdles to overcome themselves. The England international continued: “It’s do or die every game, and it reminds me somewhat of the Rugby World in 2007 when we came off the loss to South Africa and suddenly you find yourselves backs to the wall in every game. It doesn’t matter how well you get out of that next one, you are still in the same position, and it’s a stressful place to be.
“Obviously we lost to Cardiff last time and that put us in that position, but at the same time it does something for you and if you are able to use that pressure; turn it into positive motivation and work together, then you grow as a team.”
The Chiefs will use this coming week to tweak a few areas of their game plan before heading to Toulon on Friday with game day following a day later at 2.35pm.
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