Twickenham will play host to one of the most eagerly anticipated match-ups in recent European history on Sunday when Aviva Premiership leaders Saracens take on the money-rich Toulon in the Heineken Cup semi-finals.
The game will see the past meet the present in terms of England fly-halves, as Jonny Wilkinson will return to his former home to tackle the incumbent of the number 10 jersey, Owen Farrell.
The comparisons between the two have come thick-and-fast since Farrell claimed the shirt from Toby Flood, who Wilkinson saw-off in the last round as Toulon defeated Leicester Tigers. He will run out onto his former happy-hunting ground as captain, and his record of 36 victories in 42 Twickenham matches can be beaten by very few.
But the game will be about far more than just the battle of the 10’s. There are appetising match-ups all over the park that will have rugby fans counting down the seconds to 3pm, though these fans may not actually be within the confines of HQ.
The pre-game build-up has been dominated at the lack of tickets sold for the game, with just 21,000 rumoured to have been snapped-up with less than three days to go till game day. Saracens, who knocked out Ulster in the quarter-finals at the same venue, will have hoped for a much larger attendance, but they are powerless the rather hefty ticket prices as the European Rugby Commission control all prices for both semi-finals.
Toulon may also be used to playing in front of a much larger – and ferocious – audience, but they are not expected to bring a fan-base with the same numbers as Ulster did or that of Munster’s on Saturday.
Some have identified Saracens as the English alternative to Toulon, and despite operating under the salary cap of English rugby, they have assembled a squad that is capable of resting key names while remaining competitive on all fronts. Having missed last week’s narrow loss to Gloucester at Kingsholm, Schalk Brits, Brad Barritt, Mako Vunipola, Chris Ashton and Kelly Brown all return to the starting line-up.
With all five players now a full international with Vunipola joining their ever-increasing honours list, they boost an already-experienced side whose only weakness will be that they have never made the Heineken Cup final before – the closest being a narrow 16-18 loss in 2008 to eventual champions Munster in the semi-finals.
Toulon have reached the semi-finals in their first ever Heineken Cup campaign, and having finished runners-up on two occasions in the European Challenge Cup in the last three years, they may be seen as perennial chokers when it comes to the big stage.
However, there is no doubt that their star-filled squad is capable of winning the big games, and when you have Wilkinson leading the way with his trusty left foot, the big games have become much easier for the Cote D’Azur team.
They ran out 21-15 victor’s over the Tigers at home, but until they win away from the cauldron that is the Stade Felix Mayol, the doubts will remain as how to get the squad firing on all cylinders.
The French side make one change to the side that started the win over Leicester, and it’s a rather surprising change that see’s new signing Danie Rossouw replace Steffon Armitage in the back-row, with Juan-Martin Fernandez Lobbe switching to openside flanker to accommodate the South African.
Armitage drops to the bench, where he joins fit-again Frederic Michalak. The French half-back suffered a dismal Six Nations campaign that saw him injured and banned in their victory over Scotland, and Michalak came in for criticism from all areas of the rugby world.
With this weekend’s match seemingly the last chance for potential British and Irish Lions tourist to put their hand up for selection before Tuesday’s squad announcement, it seems Wilkinson, Gethin Jenkins and the rest of the British contingent will be overlooked due to the Top 14 final clash with the first tour game.
Toulon announced that neither Warren Gatland nor any coaching staff have contacted the club about their availability, and it may be down to the Heineken Cup if England’s former golden boy wishes to add another trophy to his already hefty list.
Saracens: Alex Goode; Chris Ashton, Joel Tomkins, Brad Barritt, David Strettle; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Schalk Brits, Matt Stevens; Steve Borthwick, Alistair Hargreaves; Jackson Wray, Kelly Brown, Ernst Joubert.
Replacements: John Smit, Rhys Gill, Carlos Nieto, Mouritz Botha, George Kruis, Neil de Kock, Charlie Hodgson, Chris Wyles.
Toulon: Delon Armitage; Rudi Wulf, Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau, Alexis Palisson; Jonny Wilkinson, Sebastien Tillous-Borde; Andrew Sheridan, Sebastien Bruno, Carl Hayman; Bakkies Botha; Nick Kennedy; Danie Rossouw, Juan-Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Chris Masoe.
Replacements: Jean Charles Orioli, Gethin Jenkins, Davit Kubrashvili, Joe Van Niekerk, Steffon Armitage, Maxime Mermoz, Frederic Michalak, Jocelino Suta.
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