England’s loss is Toulouse’s gain with Jack Willis playing the rugby of his life

Jack Willis celebrates with the Champions Cup
Jack Willis celebrates with the Champions Cup - Dan Sheridan/Shutterstock

Back on home soil, Jack Willis gave everyone a reminder of what England are missing as he and his Toulouse team-mates wrecked Leinster’s breakdown en route to winning a sixth Champions Cup. The reason for Willis’s unavailability is of course well known – one of England’s great back-row talents is now 27 and currently playing the rugby of his life in France, not in the Gallagher Premiership, which makes him unavailable for national selection.

England’s loss is very much Toulouse’s gain, and after the pain of major knee operations, the demise of his beloved Wasps and having to put his England career on hold after committing to stay in France, on Saturday at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium there was only one emotion for Willis; pure elation.

“I don’t really know how to put it into words if I am being honest with you. The last couple of years, there have been lots of lows with Wasps and not playing as much as I would have wanted in certain games... so to be welcomed in here, I can’t tell you how grateful I am,” Willis said afterwards.

“Walking around on the stage, I was trying to get my head around it. Then when I went up to my family I lost it a little bit if I am honest. A few tears to say the least. I would not be anywhere without the support of all my family, my fiancée is at the top of that list and my beautiful boy makes me smile every day and switch off from the rugby. That’s really important. If you concentrate too much [on rugby] you lost the plot.”

Elation at the final whistle is written all over Jack Willis' face
Elation at the final whistle was written all over Willis' face - Harry Murphy/Getty Images

Toulouse had to produce one of the greatest defensive displays in the competition’s history to deny Leinster in the final for a third straight year, winning 19 turnovers and making 240 tackles with a 91 per cent success rate, astonishing figures even accounting for the period of extra-time. Leinster, by contrast, made 137 tackles.

Naturally, Willis was at the heart of Toulouse’s defensive excellence as they continually thwarted each Leinster entry into their 22, until Josh van der Flier’s try in the 94th minute. “You don’t win trophies without defence and we know that,” Willis said, with Toulouse continually shutting down Leinster’s attacking structure through controlled disruption. They would leave bodies out of rucks and wait, wait some more, then pounce at the right opportunity.

There are few better at the breakdown than Willis but even he was outshone in that area by Antoine Dupont, who seemed to wake up and decide the final was the day to double down on his status as the best player in the game. Willis won two turnovers, Dupont four, including one after a length-of-the-field sprint following Dan Sheehan’s interception.

Dupont revealed afterwards that his time spent in Sevens ahead of the Olympics had led to more personal focus on the breakdown and jackaling. Based on the final, it is fair to say that time has been well invested. It was also hard to remember a better tactical kicking display from the scrum-half either, landing one particularly impressive 50:22 on a patch of grass the size of a side table. Willis, understandably, did not hold back when praising his team-mates.

“He can do everything,” he said. “Hell of a player. The way he kicked and moved us into their part of the field was really important. If you give them access you know you are going to be in trouble. As far as I have seen, he’s probably the best rugby player of all time. He has helped me win two trophies.”

Toulouse are not done yet. They are in first place in the Top 14, gunning to retain their title from last year and to win the “doublé” this season, as Willis put it. Based on photos of the initial dressing room celebrations, the party will have been lively.

“I promise you I have dreamt of winning this trophy since I was a little boy,” Willis added.

After the past few years, no one deserves it more.