Saracens hit by vintage Wilkinson

Toulon 31 Saracens 23
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The Independent Online

A hero in his own land and a hero now in France, the former and perhaps future England stand-off Jonny Wilkinson brought more than just 16 points to his new club Toulon's richly deserved win over Saracens in the Amlin Challenge Cup here last night. He also brought that vital extra component of mature composure.

After the game, the Toulon coach, Philippe Saint-André, said: "We have improved a lot in a few weeks but we are not yet the finished article. I think Wilkinson is a fantastic professional. I think Jonny is definitely ready to play for England but we are looking after him for England and we hope England will look after him for us."

The club owner, Mourad Boudjellal, is an ambitious man, which is why Saint-André put a full strength outfit on the pitch. He has to be in the top half of the Top 14 at the end of the season if he is to make the Heineken Cup next season, or win the Challenge Cup. Walk along the old port and there is no mistaking the other fear at the top of Toulonnais minds: they do not want Wilkinson exposed to the possibility of injury. They do not want him to play for England in the autumn internationals nor in the Six Nations. They want him to play only for Toulon.

The "Saraboks", as they are sometimes unkindly known, were coming off a relatively straightforward bonus five-pointer against Rovigo. The captain Steve Borthwick was also making his return from the eye injury suffered during his encounter with the boot of Gloucester's Olivier Azam.

But, judging by the first-half performance, it is little wonder that they are sometimes booed by their own fans who are there to be entertained as well as bask in the scoreboard success. The club scarcely put together a move worthy of applause in the opening period.

In the seventh minute, No 10 Derick Hougaard signalled the limit of Saracens' intent with a failed penalty attempt three metres inside his own half and, a couple of minutes later, failed again with an even longer speculative drop goal. But the third time he was lucky only to see Wilkinson level things from rather closer in, then open things up with a second penalty, and then stretch Saracens' nerves.

First he launched an attack which saw Gabrièle Lovobalavu break Saracens' defence, then he was involved in the Fijian's second try, Jo van Niekerk providing the scoring pass.

Meanwhile Saracens did nothing with attacking penalty positions. The home side's 18-9 half-time lead was a source of satisfaction, the manner of it a source of pride.

When, four minutes into the second half, the referee John Lacey missed an outrageous forward pass from rampaging Laurent Emmanuelli on the left wing to put Tom May in the clear, Saracens had to take stock. And when Wilkinson added another penalty for blatant offside at a ruck by Chris Wyles, suddenly penalties were an unlikely tactical answer. Saracens began to run the ball.

But their change of tactic paid off with just over 20 minutes to go when they drove over for Wikus van Heerden to touch down. Hougaard converted and, despite another Wilkinson penalty, the fightback was on.

It was all too little too late but, despite an interception breakaway try by Richard Haughton, Saracens still look good for a place in the quarter-finals.

Saracens' director of rugby, Brendan Venter, said: "They played better than us and capitalised on our mistakes but our game plan will stay the same. We will always play the same game but we are disappointed to see our winning run come to an end."

Toulon Tries Lovobalavu (2), May; conversions Wilkinson (2); penalties Wilkinson (4). Saracens Tries Van Heerden, Haughton; conversions Hougaard, Haughton; penalties Hougaard (3).

Toulon L Rooney; R Lamont, G Lovobalavu (M Kefu, 74), T May (S Fauque, 74), C Loamanu; J Wilkinson, P Mignoni (M Henjak, 66); L Emmanuelli (B Bastères, 56), P Fitzgerald (J Djoudi, 56), T Lea'aetoa (T Ryan, 69), E Lozada (D Senekal, 66), K Chesney, J van Niekerk (capt), J Fernandez Lobbe, F Auelua (O Missoup, 56).

Saracens M Horak (A Goode, 48); R Haughton, R Penney, B Barritt (G Jackson, 72), C Wyles; D Hougaard, J Marshall (N de Kock, 56); M Aguero (F Ongaro, 50), E Reynecke (R Gill, 50), R Skuse (C Nieto, 50), S Borthwick (capt), T Ryder (H Vyvyan, 50), W van Heerden, A Saull (Joubert, 29), M Owen.

Referee: J Lacey (Ireland).