And so the final Heineken Cup Final day had arrived; it had been my intention to go to Cardiff to watch the game whoever was playing. It was a huge added bonus that Saracens had made their way out of their pool sneaking in as one of the 2nd place teams. Their quarter final against Ulster was won with no small measure of controversy after Jared Payne was sent off within the first 5 minutes of the game. They faced Clermont Auvergne in the semi-final and pretty much demolished them much to the surprise of all present. Toulon finished top of their pool losing only one game against Cardiff Blues. They beat 2 greats of Irish rugby being victorious over Leinster in the Quarter final and Munster in the -semi-final.
As well as buying my tickets early I’d also booked a hotel for 2 nights early on, I had bought a ticket for the Amlin Cup final but as well as being unsure about getting there on time I didn’t like the idea of fans of the clubs playing being unable to get a ticket, so sold my ticket to a grateful Bath fan. My concerns about arrival time proved to be valid as I chose to take a cross country route rather than sit in a huge traffic jam. I saw some incredibly beautiful countryside but rather too much of it! I stopped for a lovely dinner at the Kilkeney Inn just outside Andoversford; the food was delightful! Meal stop included it took me 7.5 hours to get to my hotel! Needless to say bed beckoned fairly quickly after I arrived. With a late kick off I had a leisurely morning before I set off for Cardiff. I’d pre-booked my car park thinking I was being clever I went for the Westgate car park opposite the stadium; turned out that wasn’t so clever with the roads shut! After much messing about I managed to park as planned. I had a lovely lunch with fellow Saracens nuts Alun and Sharon and caught up with more than a few friends from Allianz Park before heading to the ground.
The build up to the game had been pretty much focussed on the wonderful Jonny Wilkinson with many plaudits coming his way. It was a shame that more wasn’t reported about Steve Borthwick Saracens captain and former England captain. As a Saracens fan the amount of abuse sent the way of Chris Ashton after his stupidity in shouting at Nick Evans was also very regrettable. Personal and vile abuse has no place in life, social media and in particular around the game of rugby, I really hope it stops very soon. But now to the game! Would Jonny or Steve end the day on a high?
The teams emerged to much fanfare, Toulon as ‘home’ team on red and black, Saracens in their very unappealing washed out grey and blue. Owen Farrell kicked off and a huge hit from Chris Ashton on Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (I’m only typing that name in full once!) saw him slightly stunned having dropped the ball. The 1st scrum collapsed as the turf cut up, requiring the reset scrum to move; Saracens won a penalty as the scrum collapsed. Farrell slotted the ball over to put his team ahead. A major error by Richard Wigglesworth from the kick off gave Toulon a great attacking position; he kicked the ball straight out having taken it back into his 22. In spite of 13 phases of play by Toulon they failed to break the Saracens defence and were penalised for holding the ball. Saracens failed to clear their lines however as Alex Goode made the next error in failing to find touch with the kick; sending Toulon straight back in attack. The ball was knocked on by Danie Rossouw much to the relief of the Saracens defence. Saracens next opportunity to score came from a penalty attempt by Marcelo Bosch, the Argentinian has a huge boot, but this kick was from a long way out and a difficult angle, and was missed. A superb kick by Sebastien Tillous-Borde after a Billy Vunipola had knocked on to see a scrum set, put the play firmly in the Saracens half. Wigglesworth attempted to box kick the ball only to see Craig Burden charge the ball down virtually on the try line; Tillous-Burde touched the ball down but it had gone over the line. Delon Armitage and his brother Steffon had a communication problem when Wigglesworth kicked the ball away after calling the mark after Toulon attacked; they both stood and watched the ball bounce into touch. Not too much harm done as the put in remained with the French team.
The TMO came into play on 18 minutes after Craig Burden put in a huge hit on Schalk Brits, from the stands it looked like a no arms tackle but the video evidence proved otherwise. Play had continued and the first hint that the teams hadn’t realised that the pitch would be slippery with the roof closed came when Bosch fell in a promising attack. Fernandez-Lobbe was to see yellow on 21 minutes when he clumsily pulled Alistair Hargreaves out of the air and onto his back as he challenged for the ball. It was a yellow card offence, no need for the crowd to bay for it however, Fernandez-Lobbe is a superb player and not known to be deliberately dirty. Farrell kicked and missed, the ‘errors’ were piling up for Saracens. Now then the usual scenario when a man is in the bin is that the team with 15 on the pitch score an average of 7 points; however this wasn’t to be the case. Toulon went on the attack and a moment of sheer brilliance made down under saw Matt Giteau combine with Drew Mitchell as he kicked a ball over the Saracens defence for the winger; Mitchell passed back inside to Giteau who scored a superb try! Wilkinson had changed the direction of the play adding to a superbly worked try; he added the extras with a wonderful kick virtually from the touch line. Toulon increased their lead after a huge drive forward, they were waiting on a penalty but Wilkinson dropped a goal adding to his personal tally. The teams went in at half time with the score on Toulon 10 Saracens 3. The statistics at half time showed a story of a fairly even half in spite of Saracens having 66% of the territory; a stat they’d failed to capitalise on.
Toulon showed their defensive credentials early on in the 2nd half with Mathieu Bastareaud looking more like a raging forward than a back at times as Saracens were battered before the referee got in the way to halt the play. The scrum collapsed again and Farrell was successful this time; Xavier Chiocci who had been struggling in the scrums was substituted promptly once the kick had been converted. Steffon Armitage broke from a scrum they’d won and looked clear, but he was called back as the scrum was reset much to the disquiet of the Toulon fans. Armitage forced the error however after Billy Vunipola broke away, Vunipola held the ball; Wilkinson scored the 3! Toulon were slowly changing their pack, as a set of international superstars left the field another set took their place. Wilkinson received the attention of one Schalk Brits several times early on the half as he put in some well-timed tackles as the fly half caught the ball, but being the legend that he is he got up and carried on. Toulon were to show their class in attack after Bastareaud broke away; he combined with Juan Smith who ran down the wing throwing an inside pass to Fernandez-Lobbe who returned the favour to see Smith touch the ball down to finish off a try worthy of winning the Heineken Cup Final. Superstars from both hemispheres showed their clear and honest delight at the score. Wilkinson made no mistake with the conversion stretching the lead to 14 points.
A regrettable moment both on the pitch and in the stands happened as both Bryan Habana and this rugby fan disgraced themselves! Owen Farrell stepped across Habana; from the reaction of the man hit it looked like a nasty high tackle possibly deserving of a red card. I’m afraid my reaction when I saw the play acting on the replay is one that shocked me but probably not as much as the men sitting around me! I’m ashamed and I hope Habana is too! A penalty was awarded and Wilkinson of course scored. With 17 minutes remaining a scoreline of Toulon 23 Saracens 6 looked a gap too big to close for the English team who really hadn’t looked like breaching the Toulon line. Schalk Brits was replaced with 10 minutes of the game left, it’s very unusual to see the man I call sunshine on legs without a smile on his face, but his disappointment was plain to see. There was to be no addition to the score and the final whistle blew to see Toulon achieve one half of their dream double. I went to the Top 14 final last year to see them fail against Castres, they’ll be looking for revenge this season. Saracens have another shot at silverware next Saturday too as they take on Northampton in the Premiership final. As a rugby league fan I firmly believe that the team who top the league over a long hard season should be recognised and rewarded as they are in Superleague. I’m sure the odd Gloucester fan would agree with me. As an England fan I stood and clapped and cheered as Jonny Wilkinson stepped forward to lift the trophy it was a fitting end to his last game on British soil. A trophy at the Premiership Final will be a similarly fitting retirement gift for the equally wonderful Steve Borthwick; Saracens will need to regroup and lift themselves to face the Amlin Cup final winners Northampton. And I will have to wash my mouth out with soap before I take my seat!