One last hurrah for a great competition
Tom Hamilton in Cardiff
May 23, 2014
Can Jonny Wilkinson mark his retirement with back-to-back Heineken Cup victories? © Getty Images
After 19 seasons of tries, tears and tantrums, the Heineken Cup comes to an end on Saturday. It has been a remarkable tournament and the shining light for European domestic rugby. It has seen spells of French dominance, times when Irish eyes were smiling as the provinces swept all before them and other occasions where Wasps and Tigers were the driving forces.
In total, 10 teams have lifted the 28 inch-high trophy. It has seen champagne or the title-sponsored beer poured in it and subsequently drunk, it has probably been dropped on some occasions and at other times, it has had envious, regretful eyes looking at it wistfully having had it snatched from their grasp.
Last season it was Toulon who held the trophy aloft and they will hope to do the same in the Millennium Stadium on Saturday. If they manage it, they will become the third side to win back-to-back tournaments. With Jonny Wilkinson's impending retirement dominating the news agenda this week, there will be plenty of talk regarding fairytales and the like but while he will undoubtedly dominate post-match headlines, Toulon are far more than his famous left boot. They have an unrivalled abundance of talent throughout their ranks with World Cup-winners two deep in some positions, Argentinean and English internationals in others and a crux of French players blended into the mix.
It's a powerful cocktail but Saracens showed against Clermont in the semi-finals of the tournament that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Their 'wolf-pack' defence was remarkable against Clermont but so was their attack. A 46-6 win is impressive in any circumstance but when it comes in the final four against a French side who were fancied to win the tournament then it deserves every accolade. Sarries are boosted by the return of captain Steve Borthwick, who has recovered from a chest injury just in time to take part in this greatest of occasions.
Like Toulon, Saracens are going for a trophy double this season. Both teams will be in action on May 31 in their respective domestic finals but first, all their focus will be on Saturday's match in Cardiff.
Both teams won their domestic semi-finals at the weekend with Saracens knocking over Harlequins at their Allianz Park home and Toulon edging past Racing Metro 16-6 in Lille. Thoughts will inevitably turn to those matches after Saturday's game, but all the talk this week has been about focusing on the immediate challenge rather than looking ahead.
Three key areas
They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. While Wilkinson is the master, Owen Farrell is doing more than a good job of being the apprentice. The game could come down to shots from the tee so both kickers, with their near-identical kicking motion, will need to be at their best.
Billy Vunipola will come up against Steffon Armitage at the back of the pack. Vunipola has had a remarkable season at Sarries, winning the Discovery of the Year award last week, while Armitage's performances in the previous rounds of the Top 14 and the Heineken Cup led to a clamour for him to be recalled for England duty. That match-up could go some way to determining the eventual outcome of the game.
One of the unsung heroes of the season lines up at outside centre for Saracens. Marcelo Bosch has fitted in seamlessly in the Saracens backline and expect to see his siege-gun of a boot in use at some point on Saracens. But he will also have his work cut out attempting to stop the bulldozing Mathieu Bastareaud. Although he comes in for plenty of flak, Bastareaud is one of Toulon's most potent weapons and he could be a match-winner.
Toulon's Steffon Armitage tops the turnovers chart with 17.
In the 2012-13 campaign and the current one, Wilkinson has missed just one of 26 attempts at the posts in Toulon's five knockout matches.
Schalk Brits has the best lineout success rate for those who have thrown to over 40 in the competition this season. He has hit 69 targets from his the 76 throws.
Saracens are the 17th different team to contest a Heineken Cup final.
Two Saracens players lead the try-scoring stakes with Chris Ashton sitting pretty on 11 and Chris Wyles joint-second on five.
France, England and Ireland have each produced the Heineken Cup winners on six occasions.
Saracens will edge Toulon by two points.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
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