Crocks and can’t-haves add to Stuart Lancaster’s summer worries


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The Independent Online

There were no prizes for guessing the identity of the man most prominently showcased in glorious high-definition Technicolor on the Millennium Stadium’s silver screens as the last Heineken Cup final unfolded in claustrophobically brutal fashion, but leaving Jonny-boy aside, the runner-up was a little unexpected. Stuart Lancaster caught the director’s eye on several occasions and if the England coach did not look full of the joys of spring as he peered down on the field of conflict, he had his reasons.

Seven members of the Saracens starting line-up were of intense interest to him ahead of the forthcoming three-Test series in New Zealand and two of them, the outside-half Owen Farrell and the loose-head prop Mako Vunipola, were crocked by close of play. To all intents and purposes, Farrell was crocked by start of play, having tripped over a broadcasting lead during the warm-up, but he at least managed to head for home without the aid of crutches, which was more than could be said for his clubmate. As far as Lancaster was concerned, this was a sore sight for the eyes.

Meanwhile, another English player of international class, the Toulon back-rower Steffon Armitage, spent the evening pilfering possession from the very Londoners who gave him his break in professional rugby, 10 years and several dozen public arguments ago. It is Lancaster’s policy – and, indeed, the policy of the men in suits at Twickenham – not to select from abroad and Armitage was reminded of this inconvenient fact when the coach paid him a visit on the Côte d’Azur just recently. But every time the French club’s spherical buzz bomb causes mayhem at the breakdown on such a grand scale, there will be demands for an exception to be made… and another awkward question or three for the red-rose hierarchy to answer.

It must have crossed Lancaster’s mind as he watched Saracens go down 23-6 that whatever hassles may complicate life for Philippe Saint-André, his opposite number across the Channel, they do not include watching Toulon in a state of nervousness, bordering on terror. The most powerful side in France did not get where they are today by employing Frenchmen: only three of their starting XV at the weekend – Mathieu Bastareaud, Sébastien Tillous-Borde and Xavier Chiocci – are qualified to play Test rugby for their country of residence, and of those, Chiocci was scrummaged into the middle of nowhere by Matt Stevens and was back in the hutch by the 47th minute.

In years gone by, Saracens were the ones reviled as “chequebook champions”, but in recent times they have invested heavily in their academy and produced any number of bright young things with legitimate England ambitions. Toulon? They produced the brilliant centre Gaël Fickou and promptly flogged him to Toulouse, presumably on the grounds that he might occupy space reserved for another VIP exile. If the men who run French domestic rugby believe they can turn the Top 14 tournament into the union code’s version of the Premier League, the men who run Toulon want to be Manchester City and have travelled a good distance towards achieving that goal.

Which is not to suggest for a moment that the European champions – only the third side in Heineken Cup history to retain the trophy – have no soul. They could not conceivably have resisted, and then dominated, a highly motivated Saracens side in the way they did on Saturday without being able to draw deep from the well of collective spirit. Wilkinson, characteristically faultless from the kicking tee and wholly committed in defence, was supported every step of the way by Armitage, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and the magnificent Juan Smith, who, to most educated eyes, was the outstanding player on view.

That Smith is playing at all is something of a miracle: after four bouts of surgery on a mashed-up Achilles tendon, the flanker from Bloemfontein retired from the sport, only to change his mind when Toulon came calling in September of last year. At the weekend, he revisited heights last scaled during the Springboks’ triumphant World Cup campaign in 2007 and together with three fellow members of that squad – Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw – he set about Saracens with a rare relish. This was very much a South African thing. It is said in France that Smith and company have no great affection for those of their countrymen involved with the “Saraboks”, as the Premiership club are dismissively branded back home.

It was Smith’s thrilling try at the end of the third quarter that proved decisive – his interchange with Fernandez Lobbe down the right following Bastareaud’s open-field rampage was beautifully timed – but if there was a lesson to be learnt from these events it concerned the optimum make-up of a midfield combination. Toulon were the ones bold enough to cast a truly creative spirit in the key decision-making role of inside centre, and they reaped the dividend.

Matt Giteau’s opening try on the half-hour was special: after taking a slightly unsympathetic pass from Wilkinson, the Wallaby maestro corkscrewed himself into a position that allowed him to expose the Saracens full-back Alex Goode with a kick on an angle barely known to geometry. Goode was beaten to the ball by a second Australian, the wing Drew Mitchell, and even though Giteau almost overcooked his supporting run, he was able to complete the score.

“They had one opportunity to get ahead – it wasn’t even an opportunity in the proper sense of the word, because there was nothing on – and they took it,” said Mark McCall, the Saracens rugby director, who had identified Giteau as the man to fear during the build-up to the game. “For him to spot that space in the back field… it was genius.” And when irresistible force meets an immovable object with a major trophy at stake, a footballer touched with genius in the No 12 position makes all the difference.