This Saturday evening, the Rugby Club Toulonnais receives the Saracens in the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup. A match between two triple winners of the “big” European Cup.
“It is a very beautiful poster, everyone dreamed of it. It’s the best right now.” The tone is set by Franck Azéma. Toulon, winner of the “big” European Cup three years in a row from 2013 to 2015, receives Saracens, three-time Champions Cup winners in 2016, 2017 and 2019. A repeat of the 2014 He Cup final, won at the time 23-6 by a team managed by Bernard Laporte.
Since then, the two teams have met twice in the group stages of the Champions Cup in 2016-2017. Two meetings won by the “Sarries”. This Saturday will be the seventh match in history between the two clubs, with so far a perfect equality: three victories each.
“They are used to his games. They are used to the Champions Cup. They know what is fundamental. We have to recover well for this fight“Warns Franck Azéma. “It looks like a great game. We know the talent of Toulon, and how good they are. If we play together, as a team, then we’ll have a chance“Says Mark McCall, director of rugby for Saracens. Two stables ultimately very close, with similar trajectories. On paper, the Saracens seem slightly ahead but Toulon have the chance to play at home.
The coronations then the forfeiture
“Everyone knows them, they have won a lot of titles in the last five years. They have a big frame from the XV of the Rose, we know their efficiency and their talent“says Charles Ollivon. The Saracens can indeed count on an XXL workforce. England internationals Jamie George, Nick Ikwiese, Maro Itoje, Ben Earl, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly and Max Malins to name but a few. Without forgetting the Vunipola brothers, Mako in the first line, Billy in third, and the young cousin Manu (22 years old) who competes with Farrell at the opening.
This promises several rather crazy duels on the ground, in particular between hookers Jamie George (31 years old, 67 international caps) and Christopher Tolofua (28 years old, 7 caps). It will also be a reunion between them since the Frenchman has evolved for two seasons with the enemy of the day. The player trained at Stade Toulousain was the replacement for the historic Saracens for two years. Tolofua still played 37 games between 2017 and 2019 with the Sarries. A club that has seen many Habs pass through its history. Thomas Castaignède, Philippe Sella or Abdelatif Benazzi have all played in the Watford club, located in the suburbs of London. Many duels, especially in the third line or at the back are also expected.
Two big Europeans who have experienced little by little drops in level. The Rugby Club Toulonnais has lost its greatness of the early 2010s. Two championship finals lost in 2016 and 2017, against Racing and Clermont, and a European Challenge final also lost against Bristol in 2020. Last season, Toulon stopped in the round of 16 of the Champions Cup, after a match lost on green carpet against Leinster during the Covid period.
On the Saracens side, the situation is different. The Sarries experienced the descent immediately after their third coronation in Europe. Guilty of not respecting the salary cap imposed in England, the London club was first sanctioned before being demoted to the second division in 2020. However, most of the executives will remain with the team. The Saracens will fly over the RFU Championship to find the elite during this 2021-2022 season.
What are the forms of the moment?
This year again, the two teams have similar paths. The RCT had a very difficult start to the season in the league, even falling to last place in the Top 14 this winter. Since then, the Var club has recovered and remains on seven successes in its last eight matches in all competitions, including prestigious victories against Toulouse and on the lawn of Union Bordeaux-Bègles. Toulon is now 8th in the Top 14 and can still hope to play in the final stages of the championship.
In the Challenge Cup, Franck Azéma’s team largely won against Treviso, 36-17 in the round of 16, before battling until the last second against the London Irish. A final 19-18 victory in this quarter-final.
Among the Sarries, the situation is similar. After a good start to the season, the Londoners are now in a state of grace, with nine wins in their last eleven games including six wins in a row. In the league, Owen Farrell’s teammates are second, behind Leicester, with 82 points in 22 rounds. Only five Premiership defeats.
In the Challenge Cup, the English prevailed against Cardiff with a score of 40-33 in the round of 16, before winning by a wide margin 44-15 on the lawn of Gloucester in the quarter-final. This season, the Saracens are the players who score the most points per game on average in the competition (40.4) and the best try scorers (5.4 per game). A very offensive team which has five successes during six trips to France during its history. A single defeat and it was… in Toulon in 2009.
“It’s going to hit very hard but that’s the European Cup and that’s the mission because we want to go to Marseillesums up French scrum-half Baptiste Serin. Mass has been said. See you this Saturday at 9 p.m.