For most of the rugby world, Sunday’s semi-final between Saracens and Toulon at Twickenham boiled down to a personal duel between fly-halves Owen Farrell and Jonny Wilkinson. With Saracens moving the game to the home of English rugby to take advantage of a bigger crowd, it marked Wilkinson’s first return to Twickenham since he departed the international scene. Farrell, the current incumbent of the No10 shirt, has often been compared to Wilkinson, and while both men were effusive in their praise for each other prior to the game, the match-up between the two did define the game. Wilkinson came out on top as he scored seven penalties and a drop goal, while Farrell contributed four penalties. However, while both men were characteristically accurate with the boot, it was Farrell’s lack of composure with the ball in hand that perhaps defined his game. Mid-way through the second-half, Farrell received the ball in the Toulon 22, and with a three-man overlap, he knocked the ball on as it slipped out his hands as he went to fire a long pass to Kelly Brown. Had Saracens scored the entire complex of the match would have changed and it will be something that Farrell will ponder over until next season.
Saracens bowed out bravely to Toulon as they lost 18-12 and ended English interest in the Heineken Cup for this season. It was a typically brutish encounter as both sides physicality came to the fore and with defences on top, it was Wilkinson who made the difference once again. Despite being 33, Wilkinson remains a world-class operator and much like England in 2003, Toulon can play a territorial game and wait for their opponents to gift them a kicking opportunity, knowing Wilkinson’s radar rarely misses. Saracens will rue their spurned opportunities as they squandered two clear chances which would have put them in control of the game and possibly given them their first Heineken Cup final appearance. After being blown away by Clermont last year in the quarter-finals, Saracens worked on making their pack more dynamic as well as stronger and bigger. They ultimately fell short on this occasion, the fact they went one step further this time suggests they have the squad and management to challenge for years to come. While Saracens interest in the competition may have ended, England’s hasn’t as Toulon’s Red Rose exiles of the Armitage brothers, Simon Shaw and Andrew Sheridan, as well as their talisman Wilkinson, ensure that Englishmen may still have the greatest say as to who lifts the Cup in Dublin.
Clermont booked their final spot with a 16-10 victory of two-time European champions Munster, but they had to do it the hard way as the Irish side nearly mounted a famous comeback. In surviving the second-half onslaught, Clermont showed they have the mentality to deal with real pressure, and while Munster may not be the force of old, they showed real quality to run Clermont close. Munster threw everything they had at the visitors’s try line in the latter stages of the game, and while the French side are renowned for their attacking brilliance, Clermont showed they can do the nitty gritty just as well. They are still on course for their maiden European title and will be buoyed that they face Toulon, who they recently beat in the Top 14 with the majority of their second XV. Clermont blew Montpellier away in the previous round and while the score-line was much closer against Munster, the performance was no less impressive as they showed they can deal with any sort of opposition.
The Heineken Cup final will have a distinct Gallic flavour this year as Clermont and Toulon sauntered their way to Dublin. While English clubs have long worried of French dominance it has yet to really happen on the European stage but the strength of both these squads suggests that they could change the European landscape. However, their strength isn’t just on a European level, as domestically, these are the two best teams in France and they will face each other in the Top 14 final as well. For one club, it could be an extremely historic double and while the rest of Europe operates on a much tighter budget, this success could be the beginning of a sustained period of dominance. French clubs are able to lavish grand sums of money on the best talent in the world, and Toulon in particular, have a real Barbarian Invitational side feel to them. But it must be noted that while this approach has brought domestic and European success for French clubs, it has been to the detriment of the national side who endured their worst-ever Six Nations campaign as they took the dreaded Wooden Spoon. While Ireland had two sides in the final last year, their clubs can’t compete financially with French, and with the likes of Racing Metro, as well as the finalists, strengthening their squads for next season, this period of French success looks set to continue.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge