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Heineken Cup final preview: Sarries may edge Toulon in decider

Updated: Saturday, 24 May 2014 11:12 | Comments

Former rugby league star Chris Ashton starts for Saracens after avoiding a Rugby Football Union misconduct charge during the week
Former rugby league star Chris Ashton starts for Saracens after avoiding a Rugby Football Union misconduct charge during the week

By Brendan Cole

This clash is seen as uninspiring in some quarters but these clubs are probably Europe’s best and their contrasting styles should make for an engrossing final.

Given that the big boardroom players from the two countries tore European rugby in two over the structure of Europe, there it is also something slightly ironic about seeing the top clubs in France and England contest this last ever Heineken Cup final. Did the European game really need fixing?

In terms of the match itself, the sheer familiarity of the big names in Mourad Boudjellal’s assemblage of veteran global talent can lead to thinking that Toulon are nigh-on unbeatable.

Head coach Bernard Laporte fields a ‘World XV’ style selection with Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Bryan Habana giving them at least one bona fide superstar in every line. The likes of Danie Roussouw, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Mathieu Bastareaud and the Armitage brothers are not far behind in terms of global fame, and in some cases, more influential.

That is almost certainly the case with Steffon Armitage, who has perfected a new approach from number eight, operating as a turnover specialist who hovers and waits for his opportunity instead of haring around after the ball like the classic number seven.

The fact that Saracens needed a large slice of luck to negotiate the knockout stages could also be seen as something that is in Toulon’s favour. The London club barely survived against 14-man Ulster at the quarter-final stage and while they stormed to victory against Clermont in the semi, the French club were a hollowed-out version of themselves on the day.

On the other hand, Munster showed that, like several other French sides, Toulon can be upset by a well-motivated team playing at a high-tempo. Saracens, who field two highly-disruptive wing-forwards in Jacques Burger and Kelly Brown and a pair of hard-hitting centres in Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch, should be able to deliver that to at least the same level.

Compared to Munster, they have more backline quality and better ball-carriers in the pack, with Schalk Brits and Billy Vunipola leading the way. And Saracens are a champion club, probably the best in England and with a strong and progressively better record in Europe over the past number of seasons. Under Mark McCall they have become much more complete compared to when they first began to upset the established clubs with a kicking-oriented game and a spiky attitude.

The biggest worry for them is the set-piece, particularly the scrum. Mako Vunipola will start at loosehead against Carl Hayman, with Bakkies Botha and Danie Roussouw supplying the power from the engine room. On a bad day for Saracens, it could all start and end there.

But for all the power, precision and pace in their squad, Toulon have a vulnerability of their own. They are not the worst offenders and do have a wide game of some variety, but they are adherents to the current French style, which is so heavily weighted towards ball-retention and off-loading. Even Armitage’s approach to the breakdown is tailored for the French league. If Saracens can take the initiative early, Toulon could find themselves in trouble.

Both sides have pathways to victory and in that scenario, an old tenet has it that finals are decided by whichever side can keep their composure on the big day. The collection of habitual winners in the Toulon squad are well capable of delivering their best performance of the season in a final, but Saracens don’t look the type of side likely to freeze on the big stage either.

They may just be able to smash and grab their way to victory.

Heineken Cup Final prediction: Toulon 16-22 Saracens

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode; 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle; 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth; 1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Schalk Brits, 3 Matt Stevens; 4 Steve Borthwick (Captain), 5 Alistair Hargreaves; 6 Kelly Brown, 7 Jacques Burger, 8 Billy Vunipola.

Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 James Johnston, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20. Jackson Wray, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Chris Wyles.

Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage; 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Bryan Habana; 10 Jonny Wilkinson (Captain), 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde; 1 Xavier Chiocci, 2 Craig Burden, 3 Carl Hayman, 4 Bakkies Botha, 5 Danie Rossouw, 6 Juan Smith, 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 8 Steffon Armitage.

Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Alexandre Menini, 18 Martin Castrogiovanni, 19 Ali Williams, 20 Virgile Bruni, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 Michael Claassens, 23 Jocelino Suta.

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