Saturday 24 March 2018

Behemoth Toulon take their place among elite


Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon, lifts the Heineken Cup. Heineken Cup Final, Toulon v Saracens. Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales
Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon, lifts the Heineken Cup. Heineken Cup Final, Toulon v Saracens. Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales
RC Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson during the Heineken Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium
RC Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson successfully kicks a drop goal during the Heineken Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium
RC Toulon's Matt Giteau dives in to score a try during the Heineken Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium
RC Toulon's Xavier Chiocci offloads during the Heineken Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium
RC Toulon's Delon Armitage pushes his hands into the face of Saracens' Alex Goode during the Heineken Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

REAL MADRID were chasing 'La Decima' in Lisbon, but, in European rugby, the dynasties are newer and run for shorter periods.

The 19 years of the Heineken Cup have borne witness to periods of dominance and power shifts and, on Saturday evening, Toulon joined the elite by claiming their second title.

In doing so, they became just the third team to retain the trophy and their potential to build on this legacy appears limitless.

Toulouse, Leinster, Leicester, Wasps and Munster have all enjoyed their time at the top, but there is no doubt that the centre of European playing power is now the Cote d'Azur.

Backed by Mourad Boudjellal's millions, the last Heineken Cup winners will strengthen again this summer. Jonny Wilkinson will pass into rugby's afterlife, but the arrival of Leigh Halfpenny and James O'Connor will soften the blow.

"I think that's the closest that you'll get in a club side to a World XV," lamented Saracens hooker Schalk Brits. "They've got great individual players. It's as simple as that."

It is not just a case of assembling the world's best players, however, but moulding them into a unit capable of beating Europe's best club teams.

"When you first come here, you know people throw it out there that you've come to retire, you're just coming for the money," said Bryan Habana.

"Watching from afar last year and being involved now, you know people call us mercenaries, but I see the work ethic of the guys, the effort that's put in on the training pitch and in the gym when it's needed.

"The last 10 months have been a big learning curve for me, just to see what you can do when your head's right, when you're physically prepared to the best of your ability and you're involved in a team where the guy next to you is willing to go that extra yard, not for himself, but for his team-mates."

One pessimistic English fan, asked for a prediction before Saturday's final, shook his head and remarked that "they've got the better South Africans." He wasn't wrong.

If nothing else, Europe's showpiece demonstrated the incredible depth of South African rugby and the erstwhile Springboks couldn't wait to tear strips off one another when two hookers barely on the Springbok map, Craig Burden and Brits, collided in a brutal first 40 minutes.


It wasn't a great afternoon for the Irish involved, with Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall facing a daunting task of lifting his troops this week, while referee Alain Rolland played a pernickety part in a stop-start first half that was difficult watch for the substantial Irish contingent in the Millennium Stadium, who may actually have outnumbered those supporting Toulon.

It was a strange occasion, with Saracens and Toulon fans in the minority among the 67,578 strong crowd.

At times, it was more reminiscent of the Hong Kong Sevens than the usual febrile cauldron that Cardiff provides on big days, with one corner of the ground giving up on the rugby altogether and spending much of the 80 minutes dancing along to a brass band playing pop tunes. You couldn't blame them during the first half anyway, at least until the turgid fare was broken briefly by a moment of inspiration by Matt Giteau, whose audacious one-two with Drew Mitchell lit up the evening.

Amid the relentless physicality of the Anglo-Afrikaans exchanges it was a joy to behold. That gave Toulon a lead to protect and, as Leinster and Munster know only too well, they are not a team you want to chase.

By the hour mark, Bernard Laporte had replaced his entire front-five with players of a similar calibre and the definitive score came soon after, with the retiring Wilkinson starting a move that the out-of-retirement Juan Smith finished off with an exchange of passes with Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, who was making up for his earlier yellow card with an inspirational display.

The textbook running lines, re-alignment and execution showed why these are the best paid collection of players in the world. Under pressure and on the big stage, their skills didn't let them down.

Saracens may have had momentum behind them coming into the game, but they met a brick wall in their own likeness here.

These are teams build on similar principles, but Toulon are a premium version. Wilkinson again reminded Owen Farrell of how far he needs to go, man-of-the-match Steffon Armitage outplayed the industrious, but directionless Billy Vunipola and the game changers in the backline made more of their limited opportunities.

Toulon won ugly last season, staying on the ropes for much of the Dublin bout with Clermont before landing a killer blow late on.

They won it better on Saturday, the clear dominant force in European rugby, but their next challenge – beyond ending their long wait for the Top 14 championship next weekend – is to introduce a little more magic to their powerful mix and O'Connor's addition will help with that task.

"We have the ability to kick on as a team. It's not just this year, it's the year prior as well and we're building up confidence," Habana said of the future without Wilkinson.

They are the benchmark and the first task for the Irish pretenders to the increasingly inaccessible throne is to avoid them in the pool stages when the draw is made next month. The next is to come up with a plan to beat them when their paths cross once more.

All eras fade, but watching a hugely satisfied Boudjellal give a succession of gleeful interviews in the shadow of a large dragon beneath the Millennium Stadium stands, it is clear that we are in the midst of a great team whose benefactor enjoys their status. They won't be going anywhere for a while yet.

La Decima is some way off, but their ambition knows no bounds.

This is Toulon's world now and if the rest want to live in it, they're going to have to find a way of matching the behemoth.

RC TOULON – D Armitage; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, B Habana; J Wilkinson (capt) (M Mermoz 78), S Tillous-Borde (M Claasens 71); X Chiocci (A Menini 46), C Burden (JC Orioli h-t), C Hayman (M Castrogiovanni 57); B Botha (A Williams 52), D Rossouw (J Suta 52); J Smith (V Bruni 72), J Fernandez Lobbe, S Armitage.

SARACENS – A Goode; C Ashton, M Bosch, B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell (C Hodgson 64), R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 52); M Vunipola (R Barrington 64), S Brits (J George 70), M Stevens; S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (M Botha 64); K Brown, J Burger (J Wray 60), B Vunipola.

Ref – A Rolland (Ireland)


Heineken Cup tally

4: Toulouse (1996, 2003, 2005, 2009)

3: Leinster (2009, 20111, 2012)

2: Leicester Tigers (2001, 2002), London Wasps (2004, 2007), Munster (2006, 2008), Toulon (2013, 2014)

1: Bath (19998), Brive (1997), Northampton Saints (2000), Ulster (1999)

By country

France 7, Ireland 6, England 6

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