7:01pm Saturday 24th May 2014
By Chris Kirwan
TOULON retained their European crown after beating Saracens 23-6 at the Millennium Stadium thanks to their power game, clinical finishing and the unerring boot of Jonny Wilkinson.
The French side, victors against Clermont Auvergne in Dublin last year, deservedly followed Leicester (2001 and 2002) and Leinster (2011 and 2012) in winning back-to-back Heineken Cup titles.
Toulon’s mightily impressive display ensured it wasn’t quite the majestic, tension-filled send-off for the tournament before the new Rugby Champions Cup.
Their name was being engraved on the trophy before an hour was on the clock, leading to a strange atmosphere in a 67,578 crowd that largely comprised of neutrals.
It was only when Wilkinson was replaced in the closing minutes that the crowd were brought to their feet, much to his embarrassment.
Saracens are England’s best by a distance – something they will attempt to prove against Northampton in the Aviva Premiership final at Twickenham next Saturday – but met their match in Toulon when it comes to the gain line battle.
They usually rock their opponents back when carrying hard and flying into tackles, as displayed in their last-four destruction of Clermont, but this time they were on the back foot.
There was a frankly awful opening to the game in which the most influential figure was Welsh TMO Gareth Simmonds.
It was a stop-start affair with plenty of big hits ensuring sore ribs for the players and plenty of referrals by referee Alain Rolland ensuring craned necks for the spectators.
Those that had indulged in a bit too much of the sponsors’ product were in danger of nodding off before the game sparked to life on the half-hour.
Sarries were leading 3-0 but Matt Giteau’s kick through bounced up nicely for wing Drew Mitchell, who returned the ball to his compatriot to dive over down the right.
Wilkinson converted then knocked over a right-footed drop goal for a 10-3 lead at the break.
Owen Farrell ate into that early in the second half with his second penalty only for his England predecessor to expertly respond from 50 metres.
And Toulon sealed the deal with a marvellous score by Juan Smith approaching the hour, the flanker playing a ‘one-two’ with fellow back rower Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe after a burst by centre Mathieu Bastareaud from inside his own half.
Wilkinson predictably converted from the touchline and then banged over a penalty to make it 23-6 with 18 minutes left to ensure there would be no need for late drop goal heroics.
Toulon scorers: tries – M Giteau, J Smith; conversions – J Wilkinson (2); penalties – J Wilkinson (2); drop goal – J Wilkinson
Saracens scorers: penalties – O Farrell (2)
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