Matt Cassidy is here to discuss the five key battles that could determine the outcome of Saturday’s Heineken Cup Final between Toulon and Saracens.
And then there were two. Toulon and Saracens clash in Cardiff’s cauldron, the Millennium Stadium, to see who will be crowned Champions of Europe for 2014.
Toulon have been efficient in this season’s continental competition, effectively dispatching all opponents bar the slip up in the Arms Park against the Cardiff Blues. On the other hand Saracens’ European form has been patchy. Qualifying runners up from a weak pool, they struggled past a 14-man Ulster in Belfast, only then to annihilate Clermont Auvergne in Twickenham.
Both teams will see Saturday as the first leg of completing an historic domestic/ European double with Toulon having the added incentive of becoming only the third team to win back-to-back Heineken Cups after Leicester Tigers and Leinster.
1. The Lineout & Maul
The set piece will have undoubted importance to both sides as they look to gain an upper hand. Saracens have a strong lineout where their captain, Steve Borthwick, calls all the shots. But a shoulder injury for the lock picked up playing Harlequins last weekend could rule him out which would be a huge blow for the Barnet based club’s ambitions. The Fez Heads will hope that hooker, Schalk Brits, is accurate with his darts as they want to use their effective maul to good effect and squeeze out penalties against a Toulon side who have shown against Leinster (Jordi Murphy’s try) and Munster that defending a rolling maul is not their strong suit.
The return of twin tyros Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams from injury is a massive boost for the Toulonnais. The likelihood is that neither of them will play a full eighty due to a lack of match fitness. However, they will be crucial in not only disrupting Saracens’ possession at lineout time but providing a solid base for their own team on their own throw.
Toulon’s maul will be vital as they will look to keep it tight against a Saracens’ blitz defence which loves nothing more than isolating an attacker and turning the ball over at the breakdown. Ascendency at the lineout and maul could be a deciding factor in whether the cup heads to London or back to the south of France.
Lineout & Maul Winner: Draw
2. Juan Smith v Jacques Burger
The battle of the openside flankers will be big and brutal. Since coming out of retirement to play at the Stade Felix Mayol, Juan Smith has started to find the form that made one of the best players in the world in his position. Smith will be central to Toulon’s plans as they look to counter Saracens’ breakdown brilliance. The ex-Cheetah will have to get to the rucks quickly when the defending European champions are in possession as Saracens tend to play most of their attacking rugby when they pilfer the ball. Just ask Clermont Auvergne! Smith will do his fair share of ball carrying and he will be used as a lineout option but it is his groundwork is what he will be judged on in this final.
Facing down Smith is Jacques Burger who will look to cause as much damage as possible. Literally! The Namibian nutcase puts his head where most would not put their feet and his efforts will provide plenty of inspiration for his teammates. His stats from the semi-final tell us how Burger will play the game. He touched the ball three times with a net gain of 1.1 metres. But his tackle count of 27 was astonishing. The Saracens’ seven will look to get off the defensive line quickly and stop Toulon’s massive ball carriers dead in their tracks. The Namibian will wish to make the French team’s ball at the breakdown as messy as possible whilst making life hell for the scrum half.
The clash between the two Africans could have a critical impact on the result and Al Pacino’s famous quote in “Any Given Sunday” probably sums up what it will take for a winner to be picked from these two, “in any fight it is the guy who is willing to die who is going to win that inch.” The state of Jacques Burger’s face will tell you what he is prepared to do.
Openside Flanker Winner: Jacques Burger (Saracens)
3. Steffon Armitage v Billy Vunipola
The bulldozing number eights will want to smash and bash their way to victory. Toulon’s Steffon Armitage is the chunky cannonball who will look to give his side real momentum going forward in the collisions especially off the base of the scrum. It is essential for him to get Toulon over the gain line because if Saracens can stop the England international from picking up big yardage, the French team will struggle. Armitage will also make turnovers as his strong, stout figure is the perfect fit for a poacher.
Saracens’ number eight Billy Vunipola has been excellent all season for club and country. Like Armitage, Vunipola, is Saracens go to man for ball carrying but it could be argued that the Fez Heads are even more reliant on the Brisbane born back rower. He will look to make the hard yards for his team and if possible release his hands and get away offloads for strike runners such as David Strettle and Chris Ashton. Toulon are in business if they stop the big man.
Number Eight Winner: Steffon Armitage (Toulon)
4. Jonny Wilkinson v Owen Farrell
The abiding image of last year’s final four clash was Wilkinson consoling Farrell with a tap on the head when the drop goal expert nailed Saracens’ coffin shut. Farrell’s distribution of possession has certainly improved since he last duelled with Wilkinson but without doubt it is his tactical kicking and shots at goal which will be under the most scrutiny. The Saracens out half’s place-kicking has not been at its near perfect standard this season with sub-par showings in the pressure cooker of Ravenhill and an expectant Allianz Park last week.
Jonny Wilkinson will do what he has always done. Tackle like a demon and constantly keep the scoreboard ticking over with place kicks or drop goals. Expect the Toulon stand off to kick the leather off the ball (likewise Owen Farrell) to counteract Saracens’ suffocating defence. When Wilkinson plays well Toulon generally win.
This battle may be the key contest on Saturday evening. Owen Farrell maybe the Prince of the Saracens but Jonny Wilkinson will show why he is the King of Toulon.
Fly half Winner: Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)
5. Bryan Habana v Chris Ashton
Two men who may not even touch the ball in Cardiff if Mark McCall and Bernard Laporte have their game plans followed to a tee. But both wingers cannot be ruled out due to their natural finishing ability. The two men will roam around the field looking for work and it is likely they will only face off when it comes to set piece defence.
Bryan Habana has endured a frustrating first season with Toulon as injury has plagued him. But the 2007 World Player of the Year is still a quality operator and with his explosive turn of pace, he will be a threat to Saracens’ proud defence. Habana, himself, is a strong tackler and will strive to punish any mistake by the Saracens’ backline. The Fez Heads will be hoping that Habana will have another quiet game.
Chris Ashton is a man who cannot stop scoring tries at the moment. He broke Sébastien Carrat’s 17-year record of tries scored in one season in the semi-final against Clermont and will be backed to add to his tally of eleven in Cardiff. He is an expert finisher who always finds himself on the shoulder of a player who has made a gain line bust. His defence can be suspect sometimes but in a game where scoring chances may be few and far between, Ashton’s form for scoring tries at present could see him get the better of the brilliant Habana.
Wing Winner: Chris Ashton
From what started in the small surroundings in Constanta, Romania, to the climax in Cardiff’s cathedral of rugby, the Heineken Cup has given European rugby fans many memories. The roof will be shut in Cardiff as the supporters will look to bring the Heineken Cup to a roaring close. The game itself could be a snooze fest with plenty of kicking so make sure you have a pillow handy. Toulon will be favourites but Saracens have had that bit of luck in the tournament so far which suggests that their name could be on the Cup. As an Ulsterman, I am wishing the very best to our neighbours across the water…. Allez Toulon!
Matt Cassidy, Pundit Arena.
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