Preview: Heineken Cup Final

23rd May 2014, 14:20

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Top kickers: Farrell & Wilkinson

Top kickers: Farrell & Wilkinson

Drawing the curtain down on a glorious European era, champions Toulon take on Saracens in this year's Heineken Cup Final.

Drawing the curtain down on a glorious European era, champions Toulon take on Saracens in this year's Heineken Cup Final.

For many the European showpiece has become part of the furniture, annually supplying us with unforgettable moments of magic.

A group of memories stand out above the rest; Howley's chase, Leinster's comeback, Stringer's blindside dart, the hand of Back.

Letting these moments go isn't such a bitter process - after all, it's not as though next year's Champions Cup is going to be an enormously drastic departure from the template.

But Saturday's final will still be the last of the ERC era, a fairly glorious one at that too dating back to when Toulouse defeated Cardiff in extra time back in 1996.

Except now it's two of the newer European forces, not Leicester or Wasps or Leinster or Munster or Toulouse, that will meet under the Millennium roof.

Toulon's recruitment policy has been the stuff of fantasy, with a South African trend emerging in recent years. Four will start in the pack against Saracens, the high note on Juan Smith's incredibly recovery, with Bryan Habana out wide to do his part.

There is not a bad name to be found on the Toulon teamsheet. So it should be given Mourad Boudjellal's outrageous level of investment, but even the lesser-heralded players - Craig Burden, Jocelino Suta, Sébastien Tillous-Borde - persistently rise to the occasion when called upon.

It's important to remember that success has not come instantly to Boudjellal's galácticos. There has been heartbreak in the Top 14 Final, twice, along with two failures in the Challenge Cup.

That process has given them character, something personified by three figures in particular; Steffon Armitage, Joe van Niekerk and Jonny Wilkinson.

Armitage arrived in France with high expectations, but has exploded into arguably the league's best player. He offers so many qualities - a brilliant carrier, big tackler - but his breakdown work is unparalleled, his body position over the ball so squat and secure that shifting him becomes a supernatural demand. The clamour for England to break their own rules to utilise his talents isn't for nothing.

Van Niekerk is Toulon's soul. He may not make the matchday squad anymore, but as one of the first recruits of the Boudjellal empire he has been at the centre of their growth into the juggernaut we know today.

And then there is Wilkinson. When it's suggested that the World Cup-winning fly-half could become the town's mayor, it is only uttered half in jest. Few players move to a club and make as much of an impact as Wilkinson. As he bows out, perhaps the greatest tribute that can be paid to his legacy at Toulon is that not just any Englishman can become adored in France.

Age hasn't limited his abilities one iota. He gives his team a safety net, an ace in the hole. They will bleed for him in Cardiff, just as he was utterly incremental to their success last year. In the semi-final against Saracens at Twickenham he gave a masterclass, scoring seven penalties and a drop goal.

Based on that evidence, what chance do Saracens stand? Even with 'home' advantage at Twickenham they were not expected to defeat Clermont. Instead they decimated them, shattering all pre-conceptions of the fixture and in doing so produced their biggest statement yet.

There is a lot to like about Saracens, more so than the grating aspects that annoy opposition supporters so easily. Forget the awful songs, salary cap allegations, the mid-season excursions abroad and the supposed heavy South African influence on the playing field. Ten English players will start for them this weekend.

Nor can they any longer be described as boring. Last season, sure, but 2013/2014 will be remembered as the campaign that Saracens opened up their wings. No side scored more points than their 629 in the Premiership, an average of 28.5 per game. Their defensive strength wasn't sacrificed as a result.

It's tough to criticise them based on that. Doing so would only feed into the 'us against the world' mentality honed by Mark McCall's squad.

They too are not lacking when it comes to inspirational figures. Jacques Burger stands above the rest; his tally of 27 tackles in the semi-final against Clermont is astonishing even to those who have become used to the Namibian's desire to break his body into pieces for the cause.

Steve Borthwick, like Wilkinson and Van Niekerk, is ready to say goodbye having given an invaluable level of service to his club.

Owen Farrell is the young apprentice maturing season-by-season into a world-class operator. Billy Vunipola only needs one carry to transform a contest.

Perhaps the key to Saracens is the unity of their squad. Toulon may have the world's leading players occupying every position overall, but Saracens as a squad have a greater bond. The trips to Oktoberfest and New York are for a purpose, to build up the 'Wolfpack' mentality championed by forwards coach Paul Gustard. And it's working - the results speak for themselves.

That is what Saracens have to rely on in Cardiff, if they are to contain and repel Toulon. Put doubt in the French side's mind and the pillars start to crumble.

Away from home in the Top 14, as is the way with French teams in that league, Toulon won four out of 13 games. The Stade Mayol is a brilliant fortress and Toulon have capitalised on the ferocious atmosphere generated there by their fans this season. It'll be a different matter in Wales.

In team news, Toulon have made just one change to the starting line-up that beat Racing Metro in last week's Top 14 semi-final as veteran Springbok Danie Rossouw takes over from Jocelino Suta in the second row.

Meanwhile, Saracens have made two changes to the starting XV that beat Harlequins in last weekend's Premiership semi-final.

At scrum-half, Richard Wigglesworth takes over from Neil de Kock, who drops to the bench. In the second row, Alistair Hargreaves starts ahead of Mouritz Botha with Steve Borthwick fit to lead the team after an injury scare.

Ones to Watch:

For Toulon: Take your pick in truth, but you can't forget Matt Giteau. While Wilkinson prods and probes the ball around the field, hunting for space, Giteau exploits it. The Australian is a brilliant distributor but also this season has scored his fair share of tries, showing off an understated turn of pace. His little and large combination with Mathieu Bastareaud has perfect balance to it in midfield. If Toulon's pack suck in defenders, Giteau will attack.

For Saracens: The man mountain. Burger tackles everything he sees, Kelly Brown - often unheralded - is a master of the breakdown dark arts. But Saracens punish sides through Billy Vunipola. The rolling tank off the back of the scrum does two things persistently; making metres and breaking tackles. Opposing sides don't come much bigger than Toulon and despite their age, the likes