As a 20-year-old student, I rarely have to spectate the smallest of top-league fixtures, let alone a Heineken cup Final (tickets for these finals probably cost as much as half of my monthly grocery shopping, excluding the booze). However, this year I was like a kid in a sweet shop (or Gavin Henson in a tanning salon) when finding out a friend had managed to get me a ticket. Usually, my writing on InTheLoose is my analysis and opinions about the game, but for this, I just couldn’t wait to give a review on my Heineken Cup Final 2014 experience.
Millennium Stadium and Cardiff
Prior to the match we did have Lunch and get to briefly explore Cardiff. It is an ideal city to be in pre and post-match. With the stadium in the centre of the place, it really does make the city part of the rugby experience, which is one of the many small bonuses that a fixture at the Millennium offers. With many restaurants (true, the large majority fully booked) and some decent bars/clubs, there is something for everyone at the times surrounding the fixture.
I may get called a traitor by fellow English fans, but from the TV, it has always seemed like the Millennium Stadium was the best place to watch rugby. This game was to be my first visit to the Welsh rugby palace, and it did not disappoint. The edge this stadium has over Twickenham is how close the stands are to the pitch; as we had great seats, I actually was just a few metres from the players warming up, and the Toulon legends celebrating with the Cup after the game. Twickenham, sadly, has its stands slightly further from the pitch, which does make a huge difference to the atmosphere.
The closed roof is also an invaluable option for the WRU. For a sunny daytime game, they can have the roof open with sun blazing in on a sublime stadium. For evening games, they can have a close roof, with the sound rebounding in to create a tense atmosphere. Sadly, the atmosphere was not at its best for this game as the match failed to produce exciting rugby, but for the times when the crowd were excited (the mesmeric opening ceremony, the departing icon Wilkinson landing one his infamous drop goals) you could feel that you can’t beat great rugby moments at the Millennium stadium.
Sadly, the fixture did not fulfil the expectations you expect from a traditionally exciting fixture in a Heineken cup final, an unfortunate send off the old format of European competition. Efficient set piece, and a wolf pack defence were the only facets of the game Sarries did themselves justice, which kept possession away from the more creative Toulon. With this possession, Saracens did very little, which is why I continue to believe that Saracens will never be a great European side in the near future. On the rare occasion they can’t bully a side up-front (rare, but does have a habit of happening every season against on-form French sides), they have no creativity in the backs to give themselves a way of getting into the game. I actually feel that Northampton would have a better chance at winning a European prize, as if they were edged up-front by a bruising French side, they would have creative backs such as Burrell and North to still have chances to score points.
Toulon, meanwhile, showed why there is no denying that they are the best club in Europe, and probably the world. Up front they, they out Saracened Saracens by making the gain line an unreachable feat. Hits from the likes of Juan smith were bouncing back Saracens ball carriers, the loose work of the forwards compensated for their concessions at set piece. They were also exceptional at taking their opportunities, with both tries coming from half-chances on the counter attack. They have defence; they have attack; they have everything. Toulon are surely the ultimate club.
It’s just a shame that the match was not the spectacle that the last Heineken cup final (before the start of the European Champions Cup next season) warranted.
Jonny’s Send Off
Whilst the game may not have been memorable, the spectacle definitely was. A rugby hero of mine, as he is for most rugby fans in my generation, was finally lacing up his boots, and did so in style. The stadium went as ecstatic as it did all night at the slight reference to him, and cheers of “Jonnyyyyy” often spread round the stadium. His face of glee as he lifted a second Heineken cup was great to see.
His playing talents are going to be missed by Toulon, and the Rugby World alike. It was vintage Wilkinson on his last match on British soil, as he nailed touchline penalties/conversions, made good decisions, and even gave the fans one of his iconic drop-goals.
Toulon really need to sign a classy fly-half for next season. True, Giteau can move to 10, but a new 10 would leave Giteau to his best position at 12, and provide more depth in the position. But whoever they do get, they surely won’t replace Captain Wilko, who will always be a treasure of our sport.