Toulon retained the Heineken Cup with a 23-6 victory over Saracens in the final at the Millennium Stadium. So how did they do it?
Smash hits Saracens may be famed for their ‘Wolf Pack’ defence but on many occasions in Cardiff it was they who were on the receiving end of huge hits. Toulon hooker Craig Burden nailed opposite number Schalk Brits with one tackle in the first half that had the whole stadium wincing, while Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe weren’t adverse to making brute force count either. By putting Saracens on the back foot at the contact area, Toulon were able to gain control as the first-time European finalists struggled to adapt to not being the most physical team on the pitch.
As a sidenote, one tackle not worthy of the reaction it received was Owen Farrell’s hit on Bryan Habana. Yes, it was late but the flamboyant dive Habana delivered was completely unnecessary – that has no place in rugby. Read former Leicester and England hooker George Chuter’s views on diving in the July issue of Rugby World – on sale Tuesday 3 June.
A double act from Down Under
The first half-hour was dominated by messy scrums, brutal tackles and conversations with the TMO – hardly a great advertisement for entertaining rugby. In the 31st minute, however, Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell combined to reawaken any fans who had nodded off with a well-worked try.
Giteau kicked ahead, Mitchell chased hard, collected the ball and produced a great offload back to his fellow Aussie, who scampered past Richard Wigglesworth to touch down. It was a classy score worthy of a Heineken Cup final.
Jonny Wilkinson‘s kicking ability has dominated rugby headlines for more than a decade and in his penultimate game his accuracy in front of the posts again came to the fore. First there was the conversion out wide, then a drop-goal with his ‘wrong’ right foot and in the second half he slotted two penalties, one from long range, and another touchline conversion. Toulon will be hoping he is similarly on target in the Top 14 final against Castres on Saturday, but when the final whistle blows in Paris his famous feet will grace a rugby pitch no more, at least in a playing sense. He and his boots will be missed.
It was a match in which players rarely broke free from close-quarter exchanges but there were a couple of moments when Toulon’s huge forwards showed surprisingly soft hands – and one such moment led to their second try.
Midway through the second half, Toulon released the ball wide and Mathieu Bastareaud charged forward. On his outside were Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Juan Smith. Some players would be wary of releasing the ball to a pair of back-rows famed more for their skills without the ball, but these two produced a sublime back and forth down the right touchline to outfox Alex Goode. Smith was the man to supply the finishing touch, defying the doctors who told him he would never play again in the process.
So Toulon march on to a Top 14 final and with more big names joining the French club next season they are sure to be contenders in the new European Rugby Champions Cup too.