Seven penalties from Jean-Marc Doussain sank Saracens’ hopes of a home game at Allianz Park in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup but, unless something disastrous happens in their final game against Connacht this weekend, they will be in the top eight when the knockout draw is made.
It is provocative to describe Saracens as subdued, but that is what they were in the second half of a game which produced only one try but was a true contest of will and power on a spring-like day.
When Sarries took their bow at the end, as Toulouse walked their way through a lap of honour, heads were not down. But there was not even the consolation of a losing bonus point, which was all they had salvaged when losing by one point to Toulouse at home in October. And, when they lost Mako Vunipola to the sin-bin for 10 minutes midway through the second half, exchanges were even at three points each.
Mark McCall, the Saracens coach, acknowledged that Toulouse had the ability to raise their game – though not when losing to Connacht at home – and the top team in the English table had clearly come second.
But McCall, while paying tribute to the work done by a truly impressive Toulouse back row trio, said he still felt he had a squad which could go all the way in the European Cup. There are some gnarly old campaigners in that band of brothers, but also some younger talent coming through well.
It took referee Alain Rolland just 20 seconds to award the first penalty to Toulouse, and Doussain just a few more to give his side the lead, but the remainder of the opening exchanges belonged to the visitors as they battered their way upfield. The first of some rugged passages of defence for both sides was under way.
And the first blood went to Saracens. Their pack had the better of the exchanges throughout the first half and a sniping run by Chris Ashton also gave them what proved to be the game’s only try. The sell-out crowd, with the exception of the few travelling members of the Fez tendency, did not like that.
In a rapier-versus-broadsword battle, the Toulousains made some seriously threatening runs to the Saracens line only to be stopped, sometimes to the whistling disdain of the crowd, in less than legal fashion. In one run down the left wing Hosea Gear left Ashton for dead; Yoann Huget was his tantalisingly mercurial self; and Clément Poitrenaud, filling the gap left in the centre by Florian Fritz, out with a broken arm from a motorcycle accident, was another who could complain of illegal blocking when chasing the ball. Clearly Rolland did not agree.
Englandfly-half Owen Farrell gave Saracens back the lead with a 27th-minute penalty but the third and fourth of Doussain’s kicks gave the four-time European champions a four-point lead at half time.
The second 40 minutes were worth a huge amount of money to both sides. Each team knew a win would almost certainly guarantee a home quarter-final. With all the funding that should generate, that could add up to a million-pound game with the mouthwatering prospect of more to come.
It might not repay Nigel Wray for all the money he has poured into Saracens over the years. It would allow Toulouse coach Guy Novès, often pacing the line on his own, looking like Captain Ahab urging his men to kill the whale of opposition, easily to contemplate inking in a transfer agreement for Toby Flood.
“It was a very good performance,” Novès said. “Very physical. A true match.”
Not that he is likely to take his foot off the pedal for the final match, away to Zebre in Italy. A win with a four-try bonus point would be icing on the cake in a three-week run that began with a Toulousain victory over Clermont Auvergne.
When Saracens entertain Connacht, they will be equally determined not to take anything for granted.
Scorers: Toulouse – Penalties: Doussain 7. Saracens – Try: Ashton. Penalties: Farrell 2.
Toulouse: M Médard; Y Huget, Y David (rep. G Fickou 48) , C Poitrenaud, H Gear; J-M Doussain, J Vermaak (rep S Bezy, 79); S Ferreira, C Ralepelle (rep C Tolofua 65), C Johnston (rep G Steenkamp, 60), Y Maestri (rep R Millo-Chluski, 60), P Albacete, Y Nyanga, T Dusautoir Cap (repI Tekori, 77)), L Picamoles.
Saracens: A Goode; C Ashton, C Wyles (rep D Taylor 55), B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell (rep C Hodgson, 68), N de Kock (rep R Wigglesworth, 51); M Vunipola, S Brits (rep J Gworge, 71), J Johnston, S Borthwick (Capt), A Hargreaves (rep G Kruis, 51), J Wray (rep E Jooubert, 55), K Brown, B Vunipola.
Referee: A Rolland