Planet Rugby

Preview: Saracens v Toulon

25th April 2013 21:53

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Coming home: Jonny Wilkinson

Saracens and Toulon will both seek to reap the rewards of their investments when they clash in the Heineken Cup semi-final on Sunday.

When South African investors and Mourad Boudjellal made the decision to plunge millions of rand, pounds and euros into a steady Premiership side based in Watford and a group of second division French strugglers - these were the moments they dreamed of.

The 1990s saw Saracens welcome great names, some aging, in the form of Michael Lynagh, Francois Pienaar and the mercurial Thomas Castaignède - but the modus operandi in recent years under Nigel Wray has been one of producing a close squad based around power and spirit rather than lashings of gloss.

Now, for all of the "Saffacens" reputation following significant South African investment in 2009, Saracens are a unit - and a unit with an English core.

Yes there are sprinkles of foreign talent in John Smit, Jacques Burger, Alastair Hargreaves and more, but the young English contingent at the club is exciting. Mako Vunipola, Joel Tomkins, Alex Goode, Will Fraser, Brad Barritt, Chris Ashton and Owen Farrell are all 26 or under.

Perhaps though the most important Saracen at Twickenham on Sunday will be an Englishman who has not been 26 for some time.

Steve Borthwick's ill-fated era as England captain is used too often to overlook his success at club level, and he is the mastermind behind the impressively effective Saracens line-out that runs at a success rate of 95 percent.

His leadership however is also paramount, not just his aerial abilities. Saracens may now be Premiership leaders, but their path to the top of the mountain has been painful and Borthwick has led them all the way.

The heart-wrenching defeat to Leicester in the Premiership final of 2010 was countered with sweet success in 2011.

Last season, Saracens were easily brushed aside by Clermont in the quarter-finals. Wounded once again, they have responded and progressed and now have their eyes on possible revenge against the French side in the final. It would follow the replica script perfectly.

To reach that final however, Saracens will have to conquer another French juggernaut first.

Toulon last season lost two major finals in the space of three weeks - booted out of the Challenge Cup final by Biarritz before falling agonisingly short against Toulouse in the final of the Top 14.

How else to respond but to make your operation bigger and better? Adding to an already mouthwatering squad arrived Gethin Jenkins, Andrew Sheridan, Nick Kennedy, Chris Masoe and Delon Armitage.

A culmination of the sting from last season's final losses and the addition of further talent has made Toulon even more outstanding. Caught in a two-horse race in the Top 14 with Clermont, they simply want to win everything and more than ever have the means to do so.

Statistically in comparison to Saracens they are superior at the scrum and breakdown, but it is their prowess in attack that really grabs your attention - an average of 511 metres to Saracens' 285.

Toulon have gamebreakers everywhere you look - stop one and you have done well, but how do you stop them all? Equal parts power with Chris Masoe and invention in Matt Giteau - Toulon are not just a collection of superstars, but a balanced one.

Plenty of praise has been rightly directed the way of Saracens regarding their tackling success rate at 86 per cent. Toulon's on 88 per cent is superior. It all makes for a thrilling contest.

Players to watch:

For Saracens: Will Fraser's absence is a significant loss to Mark McCall's side, which puts the onus on Kelly Brown. The Scotland captain made eight more tackles (21) than any other player in the quarter-finals - continuing the form he started in the Six Nations that has him on course for the Lions.

For Toulon: The ace in the pack. Jonny Wilkinson's return to Twickenham has been marked out as the return of England's prodigal son and rightly so. His display in the quarter-final against Leicester was reminiscent of the time when Wilkinson was at his best. For such a great player his trophy cabinet is surprisingly empty - a Heineken Cup would fit in nicely.

Head-to-Head: Given the proficiency of Farrell and Wilkinson's boots, winning the scrum battle is imperative. Matt Stevens and Andrew Sheridan have not seen an English shirt in some time but both are in great form. When time is running out, neither can afford to slip.

Previous Results:
2009: Toulon won 31-23 (Challenge Cup)
2010: Saracens won 28-9 in Watford (Challenge Cup)

Prediction: It all feels made for a moment of Wilkinson magic at the death. Toulon by 3.

The teams:

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Joel Tomkins, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Ernst Joubert, 7 Kelly Brown, 6 Jackson Wray, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steve Borthwick, 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 John Smit, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Carlos Nieto, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 George Kruis, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Chris Wyles.

Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Rudi Wulf, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Danie Rossouw, 5 Nick Kennedy, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Sebastien Bruno, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Davit Kubriashvili, 19 Joe van Niekerk, 20 Steffon Armitage, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 Frederic Michalak, 23 Jocelino Suta.

Date: Sunday, April 28
Venue: Twickenham Stadium
Kick-off: 15:00
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland), Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)
Citing Commissioner: Denis Templeton (Ireland)

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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