Toulon unravelled Saracens to win the Heineken Cup final 23-6 at the Millennium Stadium, but what did we learn from Saturday's match?
With Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw lurking menacingly on their front line, Toulon were never going to be scared of the wolf-pack. In the end though, the manner in which they muscled out Saracens to triumph 23-6 was mightily impressive.
For all the phenomenal individuals that magnetic lunatic Mourad Boudjellal has assembled, his team actually amounts to more than the sum of its parts. Everyone knows their role and delivers without fuss. The little things – capitalising on Alain Rolland’s iffy ruck interpretations in the Millennium Stadium mud, for instance – added up.
It was a cohesive unit of gnarled winners that ousted Mark McCall’s men. But what did we learn from the last Heineken Cup decider? Here are five things.
Know-how on high-stakes occasions – seven of Toulon’s starters had featured in a Rugby World Cup final – eventually told in Cardiff. However, the Top 14 superstars seemed strangely consumed by red mist during Saturday’s opening exchanges. There was Craig Burden hollering in the face of fellow South African hooker Schalk Brits like an idiotic NFL linebacker, Delon Armitage showing typical prickle and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe very lucky to escape a red card after taking Steve Borthwick in the air.
Perhaps it was the emotion of Jonny Wilkinson’s pre-game address, but Toulon were ragged. Saracens missed penalties either side of Lobbe’s brain fade and despite a very disciplined beginning, they could not manufacture a decent lead. In fact, Matt Giteau’s sublime try and a Jonny Wilkinson drop-goal put them behind at the break.
Saracens looked strong again as the second period began, patiently navigating the trenches and earning a penalty to cut their deficit. But disorganisation from the ensuing restart and failure to clear their lines let their rivals back in. Toulon took hold and Juan Smith’s score was breathtaking – worthy of rubber-stamping any encounter.
Steffon Armitage thrived in front of spectator Stuart Lancaster and once again reinforced how he could enhance England’s World Cup effort. Even so, the way he jackaled the man-of-the-match award away from his brilliantly belligerent back-row colleague amounted to daylight robbery.
On a largely turgid evening, Smith was dynamic and destructive – on a different plane to anyone else in the contact area. A tally of 16 tackles was the most in the match, but his dominance in those collisions was what defined a formidable display. Saracens carriers were simply bullied. Debilitating injury troubles cruelly snatched two years away from Smith and the medical miracle from Bloemfontein is channeling that hurt into a seriously special career sunset.
When the Sky cameras spun round to Wilkinson at the final whistle, they also captured a disconsolate Billy Vunipola trudging down the tunnel. Toulon’s triumphant fly-half approached the defeated Saracen in a bid to sympathise, but seemed to get ignored. It didn’t look great. In fact, it looked pretty petulant and extremely immature. Suddenly, judging by the sanctimonious faux-outrage on Twitter, the 21 year-old was “disgraceful” and “everything wrong with modern English players”. What garbage.
Now this is not an attempt to defend Vunipola’s actions. It is an attempt to defend him as a person, though. This was the biggest domestic game of his fledgling career and, as such, the biggest disappointment. England’s rising star tried manfully – beating eight defenders from 19 carries. Nevertheless, Toulon tacklers crowded him out, causing two knock-ons and a penalty for holding on. Vunipola had every right to feel totally gutted.
Storming back to the changing rooms was not ideal, but it was human. Professional athletes are not robots and controlling emotions requires experience. You can be certain that Billy – a hugely humble, considerate young man – sought out Wilkinson later to apologise profusely and explain how frustration got the better of him. Big brother Mako tweeted as much too. He won’t do it ever again. Let’s get off his case.
Zero-tolerance for divers, please
Bryan Habana spent part of his Sunday composing a public confession that he aired on social media, admitting culpability for some second-half play-acting that Ashley Young might have thought excessive. The 95-cap, 53-try Springbok admitted to “letting myself, our opponents and the game down”. Again, the individual should not be overly vilified – especially after expressing such regret. However, though gamesmanship in rugby is nothing new, diving is a very grave issue.
Habana’s Hollywood tumble was a cynical attempt to earn Owen Farrell a yellow card. Luckily, Rolland ruled a penalty was sufficient before warning Toulon’s South African wing. But it would have been more fitting to see him reverse the penalty and send Habana to the sin-bin instead. There are enough serious injuries in rugby without fakery manipulating perspectives. The job of a referee is already excruciatingly tough as well. Simulation must be stamped out before it becomes an ugly epidemic.
Just the beginning for Jonny
Including four flawless kicks at goal with his left foot and one dead-eye drop-goal with his right, Wilkinson only had 16 touches of the ball in 77 minutes. That was plenty of time to exhibit his unparalleled ability to execute under pressure. When the big screen showed his face as the clock wound down, the Millennium Stadium swelled in a rather touching ovation. It is an exceptional person that can genuinely compel universal respect.
Though eulogies will continue for Wilkinson long past this weekend’s Top 14 final, his post-match interview with Sky’s Alex Payne demonstrated why retirement from playing cannot signal the end of Wilkinson’s wider involvement in rugby. Despite the emotion of the situation, Toulon’s captain was lucid, articulate and insightful with each answer. As a coach, ambassador or even as a pundit, he has so, so much to offer. The whispers are that Boudjellal will continue to employ him. The RFU should do its utmost to intercept that process.
Watch highlights from the 2014 Heineken Cup final below!