'Toulon game is biggest in my career'
April 26, 2013
Jackson Wray breaks through the Worcester defence - something he will hope to do against Toulon © PA Photos
Jackson Wray has labelled Saracens' Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulon the biggest game of his life and is adamant the side have learnt from their defeat to Clermont Auvergne in last season's competition.
Equally adept at blindside and No.8, Wray has excelled for the league leaders this season and has reaped the benefits of playing alongside the likes of Scotland skipper Kelly Brown in Saracens' back-row. The club are still chasing silverware on two fronts as we come to the season's end with their sights on both the Heineken Cup and the Aviva Premiership.
This weekend all their focus will be on the European stage with Toulon coming to Twickenham. Wray has got the nod at blindside for the clash and will line-up alongside Brown and Ernest Joubert. And although he has 50 games under his belt for Sarries, including playing in last season's Premiership semi-final against Leicester, the match against Toulon will be a new, exciting experience for Wray.
"The semi-final against Leicester last year was huge for all of us, we lost that game, but this is the Heineken Cup," Wray told ESPN. "It's a great competition to be in, with all of its history, and the chance to run out at Twickenham against Toulon, I'd say, is definitely the biggest game of my career so far."
Toulon's well-documented team of stars have strength in depth from loose-head through to fullback and their back-row is no different. It's testament to just how strong their team is that 75-cap Wallaby Rocky Elsom is not in their squad for Sunday's match while in-form openside Steffon Armitage is named on the bench. But while Elsom and Armitage miss out on starts, it will not get any easier for Wray.
"They have [Chris] Masoe who is a big ball carrier, very influential and is a top player," Wray commented. "And then there's [Juan Martin Fernandez] Lobbe and some of his skills are just unbelievable. He brings something different to the rest of the guys and his immensely talented. I was watching him growing up, similar to a few of the other players in their team, and it will be good to go up against them."
It will not be the first time Wray has come up against a Galactico-filled back-row. Last year in Saracens' Heineken Cup quarter-final against Clermont, Wray, who came on as a second-half substitute, faced French international Julien Bonnaire but it was Les Jaunards who booked their place in the final four. The Top 14 side's brutal 22-3 victory over the then Premiership champions showed the gulf between the two leagues, but Wray is adamant they have learnt from that defeat ahead of Sunday's match-up against Toulon.
"It was a big big learning curve for us. We took a lot from that game and from the whole Heineken Cup year. The few examples where we weren't quite wise enough and Clermont outclassed us that day.
"And everyone is in agreement over that. But there is a different attitude round the club, I'm not sure it's because of that but I think we have matured as a squad and that game had a big part to play in that development."
© PA Photos
With England regulars Chris Ashton and Owen Farrell, among others, on show on Sunday, you can expect Stuart Lancaster to be keeping a close eye on proceedings. And he may also be monitoring Wray's form ahead of England's tour to Argentina this summer.
Their three-match trip to South America will give Lancaster a chance to run the rule over some players who did not get their chance during the Six Nations and Wray has every chance of being picked. But while he admits playing for England is, of course, his goal, his primary focus is Saracens with Toulon the only game on his mind.
"For every young guy, everyone looks at England; it's where you want to be. You know you have to really raise the bar to even get a look in. For me to have the opportunity to play at a Heineken Cup semi-final is a great opportunity to show how I can play. But Saracens comes first, that is the focus and we all want to finish the season on a high."
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.