Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Heineken Cup: Europe trailing as Toulon's era has no limits

Sarecens 6 Toulon 23

Lift off: Jonny Wilkinson raises the Heineken Cup on Saturday as Toulon seal their place in the history books
Lift off: Jonny Wilkinson raises the Heineken Cup on Saturday as Toulon seal their place in the history books

Real Madrid were chasing 'La Decima' in Lisbon, but, in European rugby, the dynasties are newer and run for shorter periods.

The 19 years of the Heineken Cup have borne witness to periods of dominance and power shifts and, on Saturday evening, Toulon joined the elite by claiming their second title.

In doing so, they became just the third team to retain the trophy and their potential to build on this legacy appears limitless.

Toulouse, Leinster, Leicester, Wasps and Munster have all enjoyed their time at the top, but there is no doubt that the centre of European playing power is now the Cote d'Azur.

Backed by Mourad Boudjellal's millions, the last Heineken Cup winners will strengthen again this summer. Jonny Wilkinson will pass into rugby's afterlife, but the arrival of Leigh Halfpenny and James O'Connor will soften the blow.

"I think that's the closest that you'll get in a club side to a World XV," lamented Saracens hooker Schalk Brits. "They've got great individual players."

It is not just a case of assembling the world's best players, however, but moulding them into a unit capable of beating Europe's best club teams.

"When you first come here, you know people throw it out there that you've come to retire, you're just coming for the money," said Bryan Habana.

"Watching from afar last year and being involved now, you know people call us mercenaries, but I see the work ethic of the guys, the effort that's put in on the training pitch and in the gym when it's needed.

"The last 10 months have been a big learning curve for me and you're involved in a team where the guy next to you is willing to go that extra yard, not for himself, but for his team-mates."

It wasn't a great afternoon for the Irish involved, with Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall facing a daunting task of lifting his troops this week, while referee Alain Rolland played a pernickety part in a stop-start first half.

It was a strange occasion, with Saracens and Toulon fans in the minority among the 67,578 strong crowd.

The first half's turgid fare was broken briefly by a moment of inspiration by Matt Giteau, whose audacious one-two with Drew Mitchell lit up the evening.

That gave Toulon a lead to protect and, as Leinster and Munster know only too well, they are not a team you want to chase.

By the hour mark, Bernard Laporte had replaced his entire front-five with players of a similar calibre and the definitive score came soon after, with the retiring Wilkinson starting a move that Juan Smith finished with an exchange of passes with Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, who was making up for his earlier yellow card.

Saracens may have had momentum coming into the game, but they met a brick wall here.

Toulon won ugly last season, staying on the ropes for much of the Dublin bout with Clermont before landing a killer blow.

They won it better on Saturday, the clear dominant force in European rugby, but their next challenge is to introduce a little more magic to their powerful mix.

"We have the ability to kick on. It's not just this year, it's the year prior as well and we're building up confidence," Habana said of the future without Wilkinson.

They are the benchmark and the first task for the Irish pretenders to the increasingly inaccessible throne is to avoid them in the pool stages. The next is to come up with a plan to beat them.

All eras fade, but watching a hugely satisfied Boudjellal give a succession of gleeful interviews, it is clear that we are in the midst of a great team whose benefactor enjoys their status. They won't be going anywhere for a while yet.

La Decima is some way off, but their ambition knows no bounds. This is Toulon's world now and if the rest want to live in it, they're going to have to find a way of matching the behemoth.

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