Toulon mix beast with beauty
Tom Hamilton at the Millennium Stadium
May 24, 2014
Toulon's Matt Giteau crashes over © PA Photos
This was the final match of Europe's premier tournament but the impetus behind Toulon's second championship in as many years came from the southern hemisphere as they mixed a large dose of beast with a small portion of beauty which proved enough to stop Saracens in their tracks.
First the beast. For the majority of the final, it was an ugly, stop-start affair. If this match was personified it would be named after Saracens' outside centre Bosch with the body of Bakkies Botha. Saracens' physicality was met with more than fire, Toulon threw the full range of elements at them. It was something you imagine Saracens would have seldom experienced, it is normally them doing the enforcing. Bakkies Botha nullified the threat of Jacques Burger, the man who almost single-handedly ripped Clermont asunder in the semi-finals, while Juan Smith chopped down anything wearing grey and blue - he finished the match with 16 tackles without missing one.
For Smith it was a remarkable feat considering not so long ago it looked like the blindside was never going to play rugby again. But Toulon's Mediterranean base seems to have Lourdes-esque abilities of rejuvenation.
Even when Botha and Danie Rossouw took their leave from the field in the 51st minute, there was no respite as Jocelina Suta and Ali Williams came on. It was like replacing a battering ram with a trebuchet.
But sometimes the beast turns into the beauty. In front of the watching Stuart Lancaster, Steffon Armitage put in another eye-catching performance. He made four turnovers and picked up his third Man of the Match in the Heineken Cup this season. Armitage is more than just a mere set piece specialist, he also enjoys open field and he probably watched on with a sense of pride as his two back-row colleagues enjoyed a gallop on the wings for their second try, something Armitage has done throughout the season.
Even those piano shifters are allowed to play a few notes of their own as Juan Fernandez Lobbe and Smith showed for Toulon's second try. Even though they may lack some of the pace they may have be able to call upon in their earlier days, a simple one-two saw Alex Goode left in concrete as Smith went over.
That followed Toulon's first-half try where Matt Giteau had Saracens on a piece of string. The Toulon forwards attacked through the middle and shifted in the Saracens defence allowing Giteau to chip in behind and after a one-two with Drew Mitchell dot it down. It was a ray of light in deluge of a forward battle.
For Saracens, they never really got a hold on the match. Their wingers were starved of ball due to the accuracy of Toulon's kicking from hand; their only real go-forward came from Billy Vunipola who made 105 metres. Kelly Brown also deserves praise for his 14 tackles. Their talisman from the semi-finals Burger was eventually sacrificed in the 62nd minute.
From a Saracens point of view the true victors of today's match are Northampton who will have been watching with glee at the sight of their Aviva Premiership final opponents handed the going over they experienced.
But wounded Saracens can be a dangerous thing. From their point of view, they will look to another impressive performance from Billy Vunipola and will no doubt attempt to embrace this loss in a slightly masochistic manner ahead of future matches. Quite how Steve Borthwick managed to get through 80 minutes when he was rated 50:50 in the build-up to the match only he knows, but he showed the heart we have come to expect from one of the great unsung heroes of English professional rugby. He will have another bash at winning a medal next week.
It is a rare thing where the pre-match pyrotechnics, which become ever-more extravagant by the week, are outdone by the impacts on the pitch. All the talk leading up to the game surrounded Jonny Wilkinson. He put in a typically flawless performance at fly-half ending the match with a 100% kicking rate and a drop-goal off his right foot.
It may not have been the flowing spectacle idealists would have wanted for the last foray from this tournamen but it showed off the sheer wide-ranging ability of not just northern hemisphere rugby but the world. Just like the first Heineken Cup back in 1996, it will be a French team lifting the final trophy.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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