Sport Champions Cup

Thursday 5 December 2019

Spills and little thrills in forgettable farewell

Giteau magic lifts dour end to great tournament, writes Brendan Fanning

Matt Giteau dives over to score Toulon's opening try in the Heineken Cup final against Saracens at the Millennium Stadium. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Matt Giteau dives over to score Toulon's opening try in the Heineken Cup final against Saracens at the Millennium Stadium. Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

What a pity that the last final in this great competition, which has given us such terrific entertainment over the last 19 seasons, should end with such an unexciting game on such an inappropriate pitch.

You could have coped with the dullness of much of the rugby if it had brought us down to the wire. Instead Toulon were pretty much home and hosed just inside the final quarter when Juan Smith finished off a lovely combination to score out wide.

A few minutes after that Jonny Wilkinson put them even further ahead with his fourth successful kick from as many attempts off the tee. On top of a drop goal, which eased them into a 10-3 lead at the end of the first half, it was an apposite finish for Wilkinson in Europe. Like the rest of his Toulon team-mates – and indeed his opponents yesterday – there is one more week to go. And you wouldn't back against him being the key man in the Top 14 final either.

He will be challenged for that by Matt Giteau. Three years ago the Wallabies decided they could do without him for the World Cup in New Zealand. At the time it looked careless. When you see the impact he has made at Toulon it looks plain mad.

Just when you were despairing for the quality of the match – referee Alain Rolland, in his last game, had decided to stop resetting collapsed scrums so tedious was it becoming – Giteau delivered with some lovely skill to break the deadlock.

Rugby is a big man's game, and lots of them are slotted into the 12 channel. For Giteau to have survived there as long as he has, and to have been so effective alongside Wilkinson, is illustrative of his ability.

It looked like a setplay, with Wilkinson switching the ball back to him on the short side when his team were trailing 3-0 after half an hour, whereupon Giteau got the kick right, and then did brilliantly to take a dodgy offload from the otherwise excellent Drew Mitchell to score. Great players maintain their skill level under pressure, and not too many would have held that offload and finished the move.

Saracens are not accustomed to overhauling teams to win and they struggled – well, failed – with the task here yesterday. The vulture hovering over their efforts was Steffon Armitage. He was credited with four steals at the tackle and each one of them drained another bit of life from Saracens.

Mark McCall will have a job on his hands patching up his players this week for the Premiership final. The consolation is that against Northampton they won't come across a trio in the class of Wilkinson, Giteau and Armitage, but certainly Saints will be brutally physical. And having lifted the Amlin trophy on Friday night in Cardiff, having had to fight back against Bath, they're in a great place mentally. Physically that extra bit of time to recover will also stand to them.

Saracens could have been 9-0 clear after 23 minutes. Owen Farrell had them three up inside four minutes – a great start – but then Marcello Bosch and Farrell missed shots on goal, the second coming after Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe was yellow-carded for pulling Alistair Hargreaves in the air. That was the worst period of the game: the crowd had disengaged and the TMO was playing an increasingly intrusive role.

And the issues with the pitch had been established: the surface wasn't up for scrummaging, and either lots of players were wearing the wrong studs or the pitch was at fault. Seemingly it's being changed soon, to include some artificial element to make it playable consistently.

Of course European competition is changing as well. The new version has a lot to live up to, even if yesterday's sign-off wasn't what you wanted.

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