Toulon v Saracens – 2013/14 Heineken Cup Final Preview
Saracens had to scrap hard to get out of a tough Heineken Cup Pool, finishing with the worst record of the eight teams to qualify,
but they’ve hit form at the right time, reaching the Aviva Premiership final after finishing the regular season nine points clear of their nearest rivals and progressing to the European showpiece occasion after a stirring victory in Ulster and a demolition of Clermont in the semi-final.
Reigning champions Toulon suffered a surprise defeat to Cardiff in their third Heineken Cup Pool game and had to grind out results at Exeter and Glasgow along the way, but still managed to top their Pool, before seeing off Leinster and Munster to reach the final. Like Saracens, they topped the domestic table with a strong run in 2014, a run of nine wins out of ten games taking them to the Top 14 final.
The biggest injury doubt for Saracens is club captain Steve Borthwick who went off after twelve minutes of the Premiership semi-final against Harlequins last weekend with a pectoral injury. At the time of writing, his chances of starting or not on Saturday are said to be fifty-fifty and his absence would be a significant blow.
Toulon are in the fortunate position of having no significant injuries. Locks, Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams, returned to action in their last Top 14 game and whilst neither are likely to play the whole final, their presence is a major boost for the French side.
Toulon and Saracens have met on three occasions. Their first encounters came during the Pool stage of the 2009-10 European Challenge Cup. After Toulon won the first game, Saracens had their revenge, winning the return 28-9, but Toulon pipped them for first place in the Pool and went on to reach their first European final.
Their latest meeting came at Twickenham, in last year’s Heineken Cup semi-final. The boot of Jonny Wilkinson proved the crucial factor, as he slotted all of the French side’s points in a 24-12 victory en route to the final.
Last season’s meeting with Toulon was a frustrating experience for Saracens, whose unforced errors gave the legendary Wilkinson too many chances to exploit.
A year on, Owen Farrell is a more experienced player and the Sarries backs are more of a threat, in fact, they currently boast three of the competition’s top ten try scorers. Their forwards will match Toulon in the scrum and the clash between the likes of Jacques Burger and Juan Smith will be a bruising one.
With two closely matched teams at the top of their game, small advantages can tip the balance, and I think Wilkinson’s extra experience and the greater potency of the Toulon backs will give them the edge. Back Toulon to retain the Heineken Cup at 4/6.