After a week of sitting indoors feeling really grotty I decided to brave the fresh air and trek to Wembley. The worst part of that particular journey was having to walk past a load of fast food outlets, not a plan under my circumstances!
There were lots of people walking up Wembley Way, but not that many in rugby shirts, a sign of what was to be very annoying crowd behaviour later on! I chose to miss the child group (showing my age) performing but unfortunately was in time to hear the dreadful Saracens song with added screechy ladies. The opera type voices could have cut the air like a knife, not a good sound! Sarrie the Camel made a spectacular entrance, abseiling from the roof of the stadium and the ball was placed on the centre spot by the truly inspiring Scott Meenagh. A real hero Scott lost both his legs in a bomb blast in Afghanistan, he went on to win medals for water ski-ing only months later in the Endeavour Games.
Both teams took to the pitch, Toulouse stood in a circle, arms round each other, with the exception of Clement Poitrenaud, seems he wasn’t friends with the rest of the team at that point! Toulouse aren’t amongst the French teams whose squads include lots of Welshmen etc, however they do have a high number of top class Southern Hemisphere players to add to their French internationals. They’re a scary prospect for any team. Saracens apparently having home advantage would have a battle on their hands.
The first opportunity for points went to Luke McAlister a former All Black in his 3rd season with Toulouse stepped up after a penalty was awarded; a challenging kick it had the distance but not the accuracy. With 9 minutes played Saracens utility back Chris Wyles, playing at 13 exchanged passes with Chris Ashton and ran over the line to touch the ball down. Nigel Owens went to the video ref to check for a forward pass but the judgement was that the pass was good, Owen Farrell converted to put Saracens 7 nil up.
Chris Ashton who played a blinder and must surely have booked his spot on the England wing was (yes I’m a Saracens fan, but not usually biased) blatantly held back as Saracens went on the attack again. No action from the officials, it did feel as if we had a rugby league linesman running touch he seemed to miss loads! At this point things looked good for the ‘home’ team. Luke McAlister however had 2 more kicks at goal after penalties were awarded; he uncharacteristically missed both, including a fairly easy shot.
David Strettle having missed a tackle on his wing, tackled Yannick Nyanga without the ball, without the benefit of the TV coverage I’m not sure if the yellow card shown was for the fact that the tackle was a bad one or just on the man with no ball, but, either way off went Strettle. Advantage to the French! And so it proved as Toulouse drove a rolling maul across the line to see a try awarded to their Hooker Christopher Tolafua. This time the kick was taken by Scrum Half Jean-Marc Dussain and the score went to 7 a piece. The try was a pure forwards effort so I’m not sure the binning was instrumental in the score.
The next scoring opportunity went to Farrell; his kick went very close but missed. The next comment I have in my notes is ‘Kick off weirdness’ I really am going to have to watch the TV coverage when I get home, Toulouse kicked from their 22 the ball was caught but everyone stopped. No idea what happened next as the ball went back to the French team to have another go?!? Saracens we’re awarded another penalty after an infringement in the ruck and this time Farrell was successful; this meant that the score with Strettle off the pitch was 3 to 7 not a bad return for the team down to 14 men.
With Saracens back to 15 men Alex Goode put in a superb clearing kick to touch; and although the out in to the lineout was by Toulouse Saracens came away with the ball. A good attack saw the ball knocked on in the ruck however, Census Johnson seemingly invisible to the linesman entered the ruck from the side yet wasn’t seen? Strange one that! However Saracens were awarded the next penalty and Farrell again kicked successfully. So Saracens went in deserved leaders at 13 to 7 at half time. Toulouse having to adjust their team as they lost Luke McAlister to an arm/hand injury.
The second half was really the story of the Toulouse bench; as the benefits of large crowds and an £8.5m salary cap were plain to see. This might be a bit rich coming from a Saracens fan, but, see my article on the salary cap from the perspective of a fan of the team from North London. Within 8 minutes of the half starting Toulouse had Gurthro Steenkamp, Romain Milo-Chulski, Mahlatse Ralepelle and for me one of the best No 8’s in the world Louis Picamoles! Saracens were to score first however as another penalty was awarded, the score went to Saracens 16 Toulouse 7.
With the exception of the last few minutes of the game it was to be the last time Saracens really made any impression on the game as Toulouse went on the attack. Bombardment would be an apt description as the French team powered into the Saracens defence. The defence was however as strong as the attack for a good period of play, this part of the game was just amazing to watch. It was a shame a large part of the crowd thought it was a good time to start a Mexican wave, disrespectful to both teams and very annoying for those of us enthral led by the great play on show. Toulouse were rewarded for their efforts with a penalty promptly converted by Dussain narrowing the gap to a mere 6 points.
At around 68 minutes my notes say ‘Saracens in the Toulouse half at last!’ However the ball was lost and Johan Huget sped down the wing, kicking the ball on he took Goode over the line to set up a 5m scrum. What happened next felt inevitable as Picamoles picked the ball up and touched the ball down on the line. Nigel Owens went upstairs again as Saracens fans had hopes of a knock on or double movement ; although the slow motion showed the try was good. Dussain again slotted the ball over the posts and Toulouse took a deserved lead Saracens 16 Toulouse 17.
In spite of a great effort by Saracens in the last 5 minutes of the game, including a long range penalty miss by Farrell and a drop goal attempt, it was all too little too late and the whistle went breaking a few Saracens hearts. My viewpoint? I think Saracens can feel proud of keeping within touching distance of the French outfit. Wembley as a venue for rugby takes away any home advantage, the Mexican wave at such a crucial part of the game told me a huge number of the people in the stadium had little or no interest in the game. It would be interesting to know the reasons behind choosing to play at Wembley, not to give the advantage to Saracens in my opinion.