Saracens 16 Toulouse 17 match report: Owen Farrell falls short to leave Saracens on the brink of Heineken Cup exit


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The Independent Online

Saracens have been at the forefront of the controversial Anglo-French bid to revolutionise European rugby by calling time on the Heineken Cup – their chairman Nigel Wray has spent longer on the barricades than anyone – but their militancy has not quelled their desire for a first title. They may yet prevail, but it will be terribly hard for them after coming up marginally short after Owen Farrell’s last minute drop-goal fell just shy of the posts in front of a record 61,000 crowd at Wembley.

They controlled much of this perilously difficult encounter, but Toulouse struck decisively midway through the final quarter when their international back-rower Louis Picamoles ploughed over from an attacking five-metre scrum – the result of a soft fumble by the home prop Rhys Gill and a bold run-and-grubber raid from the Tricolore wing Yoann Huget. Jean-Marc Doussain’s simple conversion gave the Frenchmen the single-point advantage they craved.

Toulouse are often labelled the aristocrats of European rugby and they certainly have their fair share of Cavalier types: Maxime Medard, Clement Poitrenaud, Census Johnston, Yannick Nyanga – if these players cannot do things in style, they would prefer not to do them at all. Saracens? With their highly developed work ethic and their Messianic fervour, there is no club side in the northern hemisphere with a stronger sense of the Roundhead about them. All things considered, the philosophical divide could hardly have been greater.

True to form, the Frenchmen went in search of the killer off-load and the million-dollar pass from the outset. Heaven knows, they were not short of oomph – Gillian Galan, a No 8 of vast proportions, looked like Dean Richards on steroids – but with Medard, Poitrenaud and the former All Black outside-half Luke McAlister running their attacking game, there was a lot more to the visitors than pounds and ounces.

Yet it was Saracens who made the most significant early progress: partly through the strategic kicking games of Owen Farrell and Alex Goode; partly through the phenomenal tackling of Jacques Burger on the open-side flank. The wild-haired Namibian forced the Toulouse backs into overcooked passes and tactical misjudgements whenever he loomed into view with nostrils snorting and fire in his eyes.

Happily for the England coaches as they prepare for the autumn internationals, the loose-head prop Mako Vunipola also caught the eye, and it was his strength on the carry that  allowed Chris Ashton, another impressive performer, to conjure an early try for the American centre Chris Wyles. Toulouse felt the scoring pass was forward and they had a point, but it was a decent piece of  opportunism none the less.

The visitors were on terms by the end of the first quarter following David Strettle’s departure to the sin bin for an early tackle on Nyanga. Toulouse opted for the attacking line-out, drove it off the South Seas lock Joe Tekori with Galan providing the momentum and made it all the way to the whitewash, where the hooker Christopher Tolofua claimed the touchdown. By the end of the half, however, Saracens were back in control, Farrell chipping over a couple of penalties from pitching wedge range.

Sarries might easily have extended their advantage shortly after the interval when Goode, such an intelligent footballer, freed Ashton down the right with a pass perfect in weight and timing, but the danger was snuffed out by Jano Vermaak. They would not wait long for points, though. Vunipola and his fellow front-rowers put the heat on their opponents at a scrum on the Toulouse 22 and Farrell landed the resulting penalty.

Under the circumstances, Toulouse had no option to go into kitchen sink mode. To their credit, Saracens refused to budge. Farrell ended one siege with a turnover that would never have featured in an outside-half’s job description five years ago, and it just about summed up his side’s “none shall pass” spirit. But Doussain sneaked his side back within striking range with a penalty 14 minutes from time and Picamoles did the rest.

Scorers: Saracens: Try: Wyles. Conversion: Farrell. Penalties: Farrell 3. Toulouse:Tries: Tolofua, Picamoles. Conversions: Doussain 2. Penalty: Doussain.

Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, C Wyles, D Taylor (J Tomkins 48), D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N De Kock 48); M Vunipola (R Gill 62), S Brits (J George 62), M Stevens (J Johnston 62), S Borthwick (capt), A Hargreaves (G Kruis 70), B Vunipola, J Burger, E Joubert (K Brown 48). Toulouse: M Medard; Y Huget, F Fritz (capt), C Poitrenaud (G Fickou 72), H Gear; L McAlister (J Vermaak 35), J-M Doussain; S Ferreira (G Steenkamp h-t), C Tolofua (C Ralepelle 48), C Johnston (Y Montes 60), Y Maestri (R Millo-Chlusky h-t), J Tekori, Y Nyanga (G Lamboley 60), T Dusautoir, G Galan (L Picamoles 48).

Referee: N Owens (Wales).