Wilkinson's boot fails to trip Sarries

Saracens 28 Toulon 9
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The Independent Online

Jonny Wilkinson – yes, him – lasted the full 80 minutes of his first club game in England since swapping the chill winds of Newcastle for the more enticing climate of Provence. He performed rather well, too; there were occasions, if not many of them, when he played in the faces of the Saracens midfield tacklers. Unfortunately for England's first-choice No 10, he could not manage the game entirely to his team's satisfaction. Toulon were neither motivated nor disciplined enough to capitalise on his generalship.

If Vicarage Road on a cold Thursday night in January is not quite the first circle of rugby hell, it is only because hell is meant to be hot. In perishing weather, there seemed little fun to be had in downtown Watford: after all, here were two teams renowned for kicking the ball high in the air, contesting a place in the knockout stage of the Amlin Challenge Cup, a competition that rarely, if ever, tops the agenda of any of its participants.

The Frenchmen turned up with a side described by their director of rugby Philippe Saint-André as "a little weak", but in truth, it looked strong enough on paper to maintain a narrow head-to-head advantage over the Premiership club and give the visitors a better than even chance of progressing to the last eight. International players from five continents? Globalisation is a wonderful thing, to be sure.

Needless to say, it was the most familiar of those internationals – the man from the old world who won a World Cup for England with the most celebrated drop goal in rugby history – who monopolised the attention of the crowd. Wilkinson set things rolling with a 45-metre drop inside two and a half minutes – off his "wrong" right foot, as it happened – and kept Toulon in touch with beautifully struck penalties from distance either side of the 20-minute mark. But Derick Hougaard, the Springbok stand-off, also knows how to hoof a ball vast distances, and he hit the spot with a quartet of kicks that, together with an early drop from Justin Marshall, left Saint-André's men 15-9 adrift at the interval.

There was barely a hint of a try, though. Wilkinson opened up Saracens' defence with a jig-grubber-pass routine early in the second quarter, but when his lovely delivery out of contact reached Joe van Niekerk, the South African No 8 fumbled it forwards. The most captivating moment of the half was a prolonged bout of handbag-swinging in the Sarries 22. Esteban Lozada of Toulon swung harder than most, but the Argentine lock was reprieved by Neil Paterson, the referee.

Sadly for the visitors, the Scottish official was not quite such a paragon of liberalism after the break. Their flankers, Cedric Beal and Olivier Missoup, were sent to the cooler within a couple of minutes of each other, the former for messing around at a ruck, the latter for illegally preventing a quick tapped penalty. Hougaard had already added another couple of penalties, and things quickly grew worse in their absence. Saracens laid siege and from a churning maul that moved across the posts before moving towards them, the loose forward Justin Melck was credited with a try, duly converted by his punishingly accurate fellow South African.

Saracens were good value for their victory, but they finished three tries short of the bonus point that would have made them favourites to emerge from the most competitive of the tournament's five pools. As a consequence, things remain very much up in the air. Brendan Venter, their director of rugby, is certain of this much, however: Steve Borthwick, his on-field leader, is doing more than enough to retain the England captaincy for the Six Nations, which begins next month.

"He is everything I want in a captain: we are a good side, ready to challenge the top teams, because of Steve Borthwick," he said. "It's amazing the amount of work he does."

Saracens: Try Melck; Con Hougaard; Pens Hougaard 6; Drop Marshall. Toulon: Pens Wilkinson 2; Drop Wilkinson.

Saracens A Goode (N Cato, 63); R Penney, K Ratuvou, B Barritt, C Wyles (A Powell, 63); D Hougaard, J Marshall (N De Kock, 61); R Gill (M Aguero, h-t), S Brits (F Ongaro, 69), C Nieto (T Mercey, 51), S Borthwick (capt), T Ryder (H Vyvyan, 51), J Melck, A Saull, E Joubert (D Barrell).

Toulon L Rooney (F Contepomi, 59); C Marienval, G Lovobalavu, T May, C Loamanu; J Wilkinson, M Henjak (A Giacobazzi, 80); S Taumoepeau (L Emmanuelli, 56), J Djoudi (S Bruno, 56), T Lea'aetoa (T Ryan, 61), E Lozada, K Chesney, O Missoup, C Beal (D Tussac, 79), J Van Niekerk (capt).

Referee: N Paterson (Scotland).