Toulon end Sarries' unbeaten run
October 14, 2009
Toulon fly-half Jonny Wilkinson helped his side to victory
© Getty Images
Toulon ended Saracens' unbeaten start to the season with an entertaining 31-23 victory in their European Challenge Cup encounter at the Stade Felix Mayol.
All the pre-game attention was lavished on Toulon's England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, who emerged from his first meeting with Premiership opposition since his summer move with a personal haul of 16 points.
The free-spending Top 14 side prevailed thanks to a willingness to use the ball, with superb, forthright performances from flankers Joe van Niekerk and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe putting them on the front foot.
Centre Gabrieli Lovobolavu bagged a first-half brace of tries, with Wilkinson's former Newcastle team-mate Tom May notching their third shortly after the break. Saracens were denied a losing-bonus point despite tries to Wikus van Heerden and Richard Haughton, their slow-burn approach not enough to subdue an ebullient Toulon backline.
Toulon's early effort, powered by the diminutive Pierre Mignoni, saw the ball spread wide at will, with Wilkinson hurling a pass that nearly spelled disaster as Haughton loomed on the intercept. The intent was plain to see in the early stages but their handling did not follow suit, a succession of knock-ons halting their progress.
Sarries fly-half Derick Hougaard missed a penalty and drop-goal in short succession before Wilkinson's latest attacking idea, a quickly taken line-out, landed fullback Luke Rooney in trouble with the swarming Saracens defence. Hougaard's next attempt, following some Sevens-style play in the Toulon backline, found the target.
Toulon enjoyed the lions' share of possession in the early stages but made few inroads in to the Saracens' defence, whose high-pressure game worked in patches, forcing the French side back behind the gain-line. A moment of weakness from van Heerden, in at the side of a ruck, allowed Wilkinson his first shot at goal on the quarter-hour and the England man needed no second invitation to bisect the uprights.
Saracens put aside the distraction of a laser being aimed at them from the crowd, keeping the ball tight when in possession.
Toulon's next score also came from the boot of Wilkinson, after he had drilled his side into a strong position from an earlier penalty, as Saracens again lost their discipline and went off their feet at the breakdown.
The visitors were architects of their own downfall as Toulon bagged the first try. A scrum penalty was marched forward 10 metres following some ill-advised words from the Saracens pack, allowing Wilkinson to kick Toulon in to their 22. From the lineout the fly-half drifted across field before finding 17-stone wing Christian Loamanu on an angle from in to out. On Loamanu's shoulder was outside-centre Lovobalavu, who juggled a pop-pass before diving under the posts.
Hougaard narrowed the deficit with another penalty, but Toulon's admirable ambition paid further dividends before the break. Rooney out-jumped Justin Marshall under a high-ball on the Saracens' 22 and after the ball was recycled Springbok van Niekerk straightened the line and sent an easy pass wide to the waiting Lovobalavu, who cantered over to score. Wilkinson converted again, but Hougaard took another bite out of the lead with his third penalty as the clock ticked towards half-time.
It took Toulon all of 30 seconds of the second-half to score their third try, when some superb handling at the base of a ruck from Fernandez Lobbe and May freed Loamanu to burst clear along the wing. May hared up on his outside shoulder, collecting a suspiciously forward pass before saluting the crowd as he scored.
Wilkinson's third penalty extended the home side's lead and they then admirably staved off Saracens' first concerted spell of pressure. Their resolve was short-lived, as having decimated a Toulon scrum, the Saracens forwards went for the jugular with a brutish rolling maul.
Toulon's defence was forced across their line, Springbok flanker van Heerden emerging from the mass of bodies to claim the try. Hougaard converted before Wilkinson slotted another penalty.
Having shown their prowess in the tight exchanges, Saracens then showed their ability with ball in hand for one of the first times this season. Replacement Alex Goode, an elusive runner in good form, scythed through the Toulon line on his own 22. Ball in two hands, he found his fellow replacement Neil de Kock in support but as the former Springbok scrum-half set off for the line he was hauled in by some desperate scrambling defence.
Rory Lamont's outstretched arm looked to have secured the bonus-point for Toulon following some neat interplay, but the referee was unmoved by Toulon's claims. The final blow was struck by the Premiership side, when Haughton collected an errant pass by Wilkinson's replacement Sebastien Fuaque and raced clear to score under the posts.
The controversial tackling technique will be in full swing in Dublin on Sunday, writes Conor O'Shea, and could be a decisive factor for Ireland
"This team deserves to be recognised as the greatest of all time." Huw Richards looks at Gareth Edwards' final match for Wales
The two leading contenders for the best modern open-side flanker go head to head in Paris on Saturday. John Taylor assesses the tale of the tape