Having been at the Stoop to watch Harlequins lose to Clermont Auvergne I was hoping to see a different result for Saracens as I set out to Allianz Park. My team were playing in Toulouse of course, but Saracens again laid on lunch and a showing of the game on their big screens. Around 250 turned up to watch the game with fellow fans; sounds strange but in the words of my friend Alun, ‘it’s like being at your local rugby club but with better toilets’. I found myself the odd one out as I sat down to eat my roast beef; we were watching Ospreys v Saints and it seemed I was the only person in the room who wanted Saints to win! Is it only me then who wants English teams to win in Europe no matter who they are? I was very perplexed by the loud shouts as Ospreys scored as well as slightly embarrassed to be alone in doing the same when North ran in a great try! I guess another indicator that I’m a slight weordo, was the disparaging comment made about Saracens by a Quins fan on Saturday before I mentioned I was a season ticket holder. I’ve always been the same, rugby or football I’ll always shout for the English team. To the disappointment of most of the English people in the room (Alun is Welsh I’ll allow him!) Northampton beat the Welsh. I would also note here that I’m going to Wales to watch them play Scotland on March 15th, that day I’ll be supporting them, I so admire the way the national team play their rugby. There I’ve admitted that now, so no shock when I write that match report and wax lyrical about the Welsh.
Saracens played Toulouse at ‘home’ in October losing their way in the second half and losing the game by a solitary point. I think I probably laboured the point back in October, but Saracens gave away home advantage to me by going for the big match experience; it’ll be interesting to see how they do in the same circumstances against Quins in March in what could be a key game. And so to the match, this was a game that would decide who finished top of the league to walk into the quarter finals of what may be the last Heineken Cup. With a number of great wins under their belt Saracens were high on confidence going into the game; two teams have beaten them this season, one being the aforementioned Saints the other their rivals for this game Toulouse. The home team on the other hand had lost 7 of their 16 Top14 league fixtures and had been defeated at home by Connacht in the Heineken Cup. France however always seems to be a difficult place for teams to go.
Toulouse walked out with what surely must be one of the best back rows in the world; with the Frenchmen Thierry Dusautoir, Yannick Nyanga and Louis Picamoles scary by anyone’s terms. Saracens gave away a penalty on 17 seconds and Jean-Marc Doussain converted to put the home side ahead; not the best of starts. The next passage of play was, however all for Saracens; and their hard work paid off after Schalk Brits carried the ball forward after the ball was won from the lineout, Neil De Kock, who is having a great season, flicked the ball out to Chris Ashton who ran into the gap to score. In spite of the fact that Ashton had made the kick easier Owen Farrell failed to add the 2 points.
Hosea Gear made a very strange decision after Alex Goode kicked the ball down field, in touching it down just before it was going out. Saracens weren’t able to make use of the advantage. Toulouse went on the attack after some immense tackling in the centre of the field, with Yoann Huget looking great with ball in hand. Saracens however foiled the attack; yet put themselves under pressure as De Kock kicked the ball in field allowing Toulouse to run back at them. Another penalty chance came for Doussain and I must now confess to not understanding Allain Rolland’s hand movements, it looked like the ball was played on the ground to me. The kick was an easy one and Doussain added another 3 points.
The French again showed how magical they can be with the ball in hand after Owen Farrell put in what looked to be a well-judged kick virtually into the corner. Huget tapped the ball to Maxime Meddard who and they then interchanged passes. Clement Poitrenaud joined the action passing back to the man who started the move, Huget who took the ball past the half way line only at that point allowing a forward in the shape of Picamoles to join in; a breath-taking piece of attacking play. Saracens put men into the ruck and the ball was knocked on to their advantage; winning a penalty at the scrum allowing Farrell to clear their lines. I do at this point have to put a word in for Stuart Barnes; Grrrrrrrrrrrr, he is so annoying as a commentator, talk about labour his point! And he very clearly seems to have a bit of a love thing going on for Ernst Joubert – who is indeed an immense player as well as a lovely man, but, really!
In common with the Quins game, Saracens were making some uncharacteristic errors with Schalk Brits messing up the lineout throw twice; and my thoughts were exactly the same, everything needs to be working to beat the best French teams especially in their own back yard. The next mistake was to be for Toulouse as Saracens won a penalty from the scrum, this time Farrell stepped up and converted what looked like a difficult kick. Saracens kept the lead for only minutes as Doussain converted a penalty after Saracens had gone offside at the ruck. Toulouse had a great attack after Hosea Gear proved that anything Huget could do he could do too, as he made a lightning run down the line; (and this was a point Barnes laboured as Ashton missed a tackle on Gear) the forwards took the ball on and Saracens kept them out with Nyanga being held up. Alex Goode had in the play gone in at the side and another penalty was awarded. Doussain in fine form with the boot scored a further 3 points, and Saracens were lucky to have had only 3 scored and to not see a yellow card brandished. The teams went in with the score at Toulouse 12 Saracens 8.
Saracens came out all guns firing ti start the second half but it was Toulouse who were put in a good attacking position as Billy Vunipola went straight off his feet in the ruck. After winning the .lineout the big boys of Toulouse again attacked the Saracens line; much to the disgust of the crowd Saracens turned the ball over according to the referee, however the touch judge actually saw something and the decision was over turned as Poitrenaud had taken the ball into the ruck and been taken to the ground. Toulouse had a scrum on the 5m line, a position that seemed a certainty for a try considering the class of their forwards; there wasn’t to be a try, but there was another penalty. Doussain inevitably scored the 3 points.
There was a good exchange of ball, with a bit or rugby tennis added in; at 15 points to 8 Saracens were still in the game. Louis Picamoles who is in my opinion on of the best number 8’s in the world wrestled Schalk Brits to the ground in the midst of this play, showing immense strength. Doussain actually missed a penalty at 60 minutes keeping the gap at 7 points; Steve Borthwick had been warned about the number of penalties being given away and at 61 minutes Mako Vunipola paid the price with a ten minute ‘rest’ in the bin. Doussain made no mistake on this kick and added another 3 points to his tally. Some rugby madness at this point as Yann David returned having gone off with an injury; he had what looked like a broken cheek bone, amazing to have him thrown back into the fray!
Saracens were awarded a penalty as the 14 men went on the attack as Chilliboy Ralepelle (so glad I could get that name in) got himself on the wrong side of the ruck. To many whistles from the crowd Farrell slotted the ball over to close the gap to 7 points again. Mako Vunipola (or Makipola as the silly Barnes called him) returned with only 3 points apiece having been scored in his absence; a credit to the Saracens defence. Toulouse attacked form a lineout and Saracens gave away another penalty by failing to roll away; Doussain duly scored, taking the bonus point out of the grasp of the visitors. The score was to finish at Toulouse 21 Saracens 11, it was always going to be a big ask for the team from North London, they were in something of a fist fight. Toulouse will progress to the quarter finals with Saracens still able to qualify as long as they beat Connacht at Allianz Park preferably with a bonus point win. Bring on the Irish!