In a replay of last year’s Heineken Cup semi-final, Saturday’s showdown in Cardiff fittingly sees the English and French regular season league leaders battle it out for European rugby glory. Premiership Rugby leaders Saracens, who scored a record 87 points during their league endeavours, face off against Top 14 table-toppers Toulon.
Such has been their dominance that all five nominations for ERC Player of the Year come from the two sides; three from Saracens (Chris Ashton, Schalk Brits and Jacques Burger) and two from Toulon (Steffon Armitage and Jonny Wilkinson). It seems apt to talk about them a little.
Saracens have in the past been labelled as a side that chokes the life out of its oppositions, and no more was this the case than against Clermont in their semi-final, but they have added an extra dimension to their attacking game this season as well.
In defence, their aggression is what sets Saracens apart from other sides, led by the unrelenting tackling work of Jacques Burger. While the Namibian openside looks like he’s one step down the evolutionary ladder, his ability to read and cause disruption to an attacking play is akin to a bowling ball traveling towards trembling skittles, the ensuing chaos more often than not resulting in turnover ball. To say that his contribution may outweigh his opposite man’s speaks volumes, when the Toulon no.7 is none other than Argentinean talisman, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.
Alongside Burger in the defensive ranks, but also one of Saracens’s most potent attacking threats, is Schalk Brits. Arguably the most mobile hooker currently playing the game (and probably to have ever played the game), Brits has the pace of an outside centre and the handling to go with it. Often used as a linchpin in Saracens’ attacking play, he backs this up with an outstanding contribution at the breakdown and in the set piece. He was second to Burger in the tackle count against Clermont, his lineout throwing has been one of the most consistent of the tournament and he often pops up with the ball from the bottom of Saracens’ hugely effective rolling maul.
Steffon Armitage has enjoyed a new lease of life filling in at no.8 for the injured Chris Masoe, with calls for the former England flanker to again be considered for international duty. He’s a strong runner with a deceptive turn of pace and his low centre of gravity makes him very hard to bring down as well as almost immovable at the breakdown. Lancaster is sticking by is guns, though, and with good cause considering the emergence of Billy Vunipola. Both players provide a substantial amount of their sides’ respective forward momentum and have an impressive ability to turn the momentum of a game.
Both Saracens wingers have enjoyed tremendous form this year, David Strettle taking full advantage of Saracens’ attacking play in the domestic league and Chris Ashton reaping the benefits on the European stage. Reinvigorated by missing out on the 6 Nations for England, Ashton, currently sitting on 11 tries, has the chance on Saturday to extend his record for scoring the most tries in a Heineken Cup campaign.
Game-changers such as Bryan Habana, Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell also litter the Toulon backline and it will fall to Jonny Wilkinson and Owen Farrell to ignite the sparkle in the hugely talented guys outside them.
In that semi-final a year ago the veteran Wilkinson treated us to a typical kicking master-class of seven penalties and a dropped goal (despite Farrell’s vain efforts to floor his predecessor). Farrell was overawed by the occasion at Twickenham but with an extra year’s experience under his belt, expect the pair to be more evenly pegged, despite Wilkinson leading this season’s points tally with 100.
A key clash in the centres will see Argentinean Marcelo Bosch face-off against the marauding Mathieu Bastareaud. Where Bosch is capable of his fair share of … well … ‘boshing’ through defenders, he has more of a balanced, all-round gamethough there’s no denying the merits of Bastareaud’s battering ram-esque style of play!
And a final word on the Captains
The sides are led by two of the most experienced players still playing the game – though not for much longer. The ‘secret’ is out that Jonny Wilkinson will retire at the end of the season to join the Toulon coaching staff and Sarries stalwart Steve Borthwick also nears the end of an esteemed career. Arguably the most dedicated and professional player to grace the game, Wilko will give no less than 100% commitment to the last two games of his career, while the fiercely passionate Borthwick will be looking to rectify narrowly missing out on silverware last season.
Borthwick will also be integral to Saracen’s set piece ball, especially in the line-out against the likes of Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha.
Both sides remain in contention to complete the double as they head into their respective league finals the following weekend (Saracens against Northampton; Toulon against Castres) but one of those dreams will be smashed come Saturday.
With so many international stars on show it’s unlikely to be played at any less than Test match standard and ridiculously tough to call but a wild stab in the dark and we’re going with … eek … Toulon, narrowly.