Toulouse secured a Heineken Cup quarter-final berth with a hard-fought 21-11 win over Saracens at Stade Ernest-Wallon on Saturday.
This match was hailed as the game of the weekend, and it certainly lived up to its billing in terms of entertainment and engrossing physicality, though tries were at a premium.
Toulouse's dominance at the breakdown and in the collisions was integral to their success; though Guy Noves' men will no doubt be disappointed their ascendancy did not translate to a greater margin of victory.
Restarts were to prove problematic for both sides, with Alistair Hargreaves setting the tone in going off his feet at the opening breakdown; Jean-Marc Doussain slotting the resultant penalty.
Then Toulouse, in failing to clear their lines from the subsequent kick-off, allowed Saracens to build phases in the home 22. That failure was compounded by a rather glaring blindside defensive lapse that saw Chris Ashton scamper home unopposed for the game's first try. His efforts to make the conversion easier for Owen Farrell were in vain as England's first-choice pivot was wide of the mark with his kick.
The hosts burst into life on 12 minutes, however, with a first glimpse of Gallic flair; Yoann Huget's incisive break eventually setting up a second opportunity for three points, taken by Doussain.
That sparked a brace of end-to-end attacks, with David Strettle looking lively for the visitors before Huget combined brilliantly with Maxime Medard to break 60 metres downfield from his own corner flag.
Louis Picamoles enjoyed a titanic battle with Vunipola and company, with the man atop the tournament's "defenders beaten" chart swatting aside a few more as he rampaged around the field.
But the French number eight was rendered powerless as Saracens gained an early ascendancy in the scrummage; Farrell regaining the lead for his side from a set-piece penalty as the half-hour mark approached.
Overall, though, the penalty count was not in the visitors' favour, and Doussain cancelled out Farrell's effort with his third a minute later.
If Toulouse's defence was poor for Ashton's try, the winger repaid the compliment late in the first half; a dreadful missed tackle allowing the in-form Hosea Gear to speed up the touchline. The pack bludgeoned their way towards the line, but Sarries' defence held, and forced the hosts to settle for three points, Doussain slotting penalty number four.
Toulouse's defence was equally resolute and much more aggressive as half-time approached. Patricio Albacete turning Alex Goode over as Saracens sought a late drop-goal, but the Frenchmen eventually conceded a penalty, ending a breathless 40 minutes four points to the good.
The opening period of the second-half was scrappy, but the home crowd were energised as Clement Poitrenaud rose majestically to gather Doussain's Garryowen. He was held up in a maul five metres from the line, Alain Rolland correctly awarding Toulouse the put-in to the scrum. Again, the hosts battered the Saracens' try line, but again, had to settle for three more points from Doussain.
The hulking Picamoles performed something of a judo throw on Schalk Brits to win another Toulouse penalty and more field position for the hosts, but Doussain's attempted drop-goal drifted wide, before failing with a long-range penalty attempt as the visitors' infringements continued to mount.
Rolland eventually lost patience with Saracens' indiscipline, with yet another breakdown transgression seeing Mako Vunipola shown a yellow card. This time, Doussain made no mistake, and gave his side a ten-point cushion.
Despite the numerical disadvantage, Sarries responded well, handing Farrell a straightforward penalty attempt, and continued to press with fifteen minutes remaining.
But the visitors survived another scare as fly-half's poor up-and-under was fielded well by Poitrenaud; the centre sending Gear on a searing 60-metre run, halted just short of the line.
Credit is due to Saracens' defensive effort, but a degree of profligacy from the hosts also contributed to their failure to cross the whitewash.
Doussain rounded off the win with his seventh penalty in the final three minutes; Les Rouges et Noirs withstanding a brave late Sarries charge and a miscued drop-goal attempt from replacement Charlie Hodgson.
Pens: Doussain 7
Yellow Card: M Vunipola
Toulouse: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Yann David, 12 Clement Poitrenaud , 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Jean-Marc Doussain, 9 Jano Vermaak, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 6 Yannick Nyanga, 5 Patricio Albacete, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Census Johnston, 2 Chiliboy Ralepelle, 1 Schalk Ferriera.
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Gurthrö Steenkamp, 18 Yohan Montes, 19 Romain Millo-Chluski, 20 Joe Tekori, 21 Yacouba Camara, 22 Sebastian Bézy, 23 Gael Fickou.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Chris Wyles, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Kelly Brown, 6 Jackson Wray, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steve Borthwick (capt), 3 James Johnston, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Matt Stevens, 19 George Kruis, 20 Ernst Joubert, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Duncan Taylor.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ire)
By Jamie Lyall