Toulon 25-16: Toulon power to victory to set up all-French European Challenge Cup final against Lyon
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Olympic champion Jiuta Wainiqolo scored a wonder try to break Saracens’ hearts and end English rugby’s involvement in Europe.
A week after the Premiership’s interest in the Champions Cup was snuffed out in Paris, French rugby pulled the trigger in the Challenge Cup.
Wasps slipped to a narrow defeat in Lyon while Toulon proved too strong for Owen Farrell’s Saracens on the Cote d’Azur.
The decisive moment in a fiery contest at Stade Mayol came on the hour when Wainiqolo, who struck sevens gold with Fiji in Tokyo last summer, bolted past five defenders to set up an all-French final in Marseille on Friday week.
“We’re obviously disappointed,” said Farrell. “Disappointed in the result but probably more in the performance. We feel like we could have given a better account of ourselves.
“We couldn’t string too much together. We need to find out why and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Look inwards and make sure it spurs us on for the rest of the season.”
How Saracens could have done with such a cutting edge on a night when their best efforts were blunted by inspired opponents.
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It had been that way from the moment the home crowd was pumped up to bursting point by Toulon’s famous pre-match Pilou Pilou ‘haka’.
On their first attack Toulon scrum-half Baptiste Serin kicked cleverly behind the Sarries defensive line for halfback partner Carbonel to run onto and collect.
Although he was stopped Toulon recycled the ball, Sergio Parisse fed it to Carbonel who put France wing Gabin Villiere over for the first of his two tries.
Sarries were flustered and captain Owen Farrell was three times admonished for backchat, with Irish referee Andrew Brace repeatedly warning: “Trust us to do our job, Owen, please”.
Not for the first time Farrell responded to the combination of adversity and hostility, kicking his side onto the scoreboard.
He then looked disgusted with himself as his next penalty attempt came back off the upright, but while his head dropped, team mate Ben Earl’s did not.
The England flanker saw Toulon taking their time clearing their lines and as Serin dawdled with ball in hand, Earl charged him down for the try.
It was an instant mood changer and Saracens quickly scored again, Farrell splinting the uprights to put the visitors six points clear.
But Toulon have never lost a semi-final in either European cup competition, winning six out of six.
And that pedigree served them well as they weathered the storm and when Farrell’s kick was fielded on the stroke of half-time, their back row combined to run it back.
Parisse fed captain Charles Ollivon, who rode a tackle before feeding it out to Cornell du Preez who calmly released the quicksilver Villiere for his second.
Sarries would have been spitting at that one, their defence caught horribly napping, and frustration grew with the restart.
Elliot Daly missed a long-range shot at goal and after Carbonel had extended Toulon’s lead, Farrell was warned by the ref “you either work with me” or change the captain.
Once again the England skipper responded by landing a penalty to close the gap to two points. But any thought that a comeback was on the cards was then spectacularly ended by Wainiqolo.
It was a try worthy of winning any game and, despite fierce late resistance from Mark McCall’s men, it duly earned Toulon the spoils.
Toulon: Luc; Wainiqolo, Smaili, Paiai’aua, Villiere; Carbonel, Serin; Gros, Tolofua, Gigashvili, Etzebeth, Alainu’uese, Du Preez, Ollivon, Parisse
Tries: Villiere 2, Wainiqolo. Cons: Carbonel 2. Pens: Carbonel 2.
Saracens: Goode; Malins, Daly, Tompkins, Segun; Farrell (capt), Davies; M Vunipola, George, Koch, Itoje, Isiekwe, McFarland, Earl, B Vunipola.
Try: Earl. Con: Farrell. Pens: Farrell 3.