PRAGMATIC Scotland captain Kelly Brown had already put Saracens’ 23-6 Heineken Cup final defeat by Toulon behind him on Saturday before admitting they deserved to lose.
Saracens won many of the stats columns, but had just two successful penalties by England outside-half Owen Farrell to show for their efforts as Jonny Wilkinson, ever Mr Perfection, conjured up a masterclass in his final match on British soil as Toulon became only the third club to retain European rugby’s biggest prize.
Brown said: “I think the better team won on the day. We had a lot of ball but couldn’t convert our pressure into points. Credit to them. They defended very, very well and took any chances they had.
“They were absolutely ruthless, so fair play. It’s disappointing, but we’ve already moved on because we’ve got a massive game on Saturday.”
Chasing a famous double, Brown and his team-mates were unable to spoil the Toulon captain’s farewell party in front of a 67,578 crowd dominated by Toulon supporters and those from clubs around the UK and Ireland supporting anyone but Saracens.
This was neither a clash for the faint-hearted nor those who prefer expansive play. It was brutal bordering on barbaric at times, South African forwards on both sides showing little regard for their compatriots.
Saracens produced a gutsy defensive display they have become known for in recent years, but Toulon’s class told, as the English back three were largely anonymous in attack.
There were early signs that fortune was on Mark McCall’s side as a dropped kick-off catch by Juan Martin Fernández Lobbe led to a scrum which led to the first penalty and points of the game for Farrell.
But their attacking game was snuffed out time and time again with Toulon’s backrow forwards Juan Smith, Steffon Armitage and Lobbe putting their bodies on the line to make 38 of Toulon’s 110 tackles.
Even England’s one-man wrecking machine Billy Vunipola, making 21 carries for 105 metres, couldn’t find a decisive path through for England’s big spenders and when it looked possible he was eventually dealt with before becoming a threat.
There was a sense of déjà vu as Wilkinson, who turned 35 yesterday, twisted the knife into Saracens’ formidable defence at every opportunity and won the battle with the 22-year-old dubbed as his successor.
In his penultimate match before retirement, it wasn’t just Wilkinson’s laser-guided kicking which impressed under the roof in Cardiff as he landed 13 points.
His handling and decision-making proved to be as sharp as ever as he was involved in the build-up to the opening try of the match as his deft switch of direction allowed former Australia international Matt Giteau to exploit space in behind.
As has come to be expected, it was nothing flash by Wilkinson, just calculated brilliance. Giteau’s scuffed chip kick eventually bobbled into the hands of winger Drew Mitchell after a fortuitous bounce and Giteau was on hand to collect the offload as his compatriot was swallowed up.
The expected drop-goal attempt by Wilkinson landed three minutes before the break to give the French side a 10-3 lead and they looked comfortable in the second half despite another early penalty for Saracens.
Once Wilkinson had cancelled that out with his usual precision off the tee, his pass out wide to Drew Mitchell was the start of the move for Toulon’s second try just before the hour mark as Mathieu Bastareaud stormed down the right wing and, after a sublime one-handed catch and a give-and-go with Fernández Lobbe, South African Smith went over in the corner before Wilkinson added the conversion and another penalty two minutes later. For one of rugby’s most-loved sons, it was the perfect farewell. His departure from the game three minutes from the end earned him the most surreal vociferous standing ovation for an Englishman at the home of Welsh rugby.
The jubilant rouge et noir now prepare to play Scotland’s Castres duo Richie Gray and Max Evans on Saturday in a repeat of last season’s Top 14 final but for Brown, and Saracens, comes another ultimate test as they face Northampton Saints in the Aviva Premiership final at Twickenham.
Brown said: “We’ll look back and learn our lessons. It is something, as a squad, we’ve done successfully in the past. When we have had a setback, we’ve moved on pretty quickly.
“We have had a great season, but we are aware that we have won nothing yet. It’s a huge challenge on Saturday.”