SARACENS hold the world record for the number of fans attracted to a club rugby match (83,761) but Twickenham will fall far short of that figure this afternoon when the Londoners take on the might of Toulon in the second Heineken semi-final.
By the middle of last week just 20,000 tickets had been sold although the Sunday kick off makes the match less attractive, especially if you are hitching back and forward from the south of France.
It’s a tasty enough looking tie, pitting the English league leaders against the second-placed club in the Top 14. Toulon are trailing Clermont by just one point thanks to last weekend’s surprise loss to lowly Grenoble by the same one point margin.
“We’re not reading too much into that result,” argues Scotland skipper and Sarries flanker Kelly Brown. “I saw the team that played against Grenoble and it won’t be the same one that we face on Sunday afternoon. Their squad is a Who’s Who of World Rugby.
“They are littered with star names and tests don’t come much tougher than this one. But we know our systems and we know how we want to play the game – the attack, the defence, our kicking game – so all that’s left is for us to execute the skills on the day.”
He’s not kidding. Toulon boast such strength in depth that Gethin Jenkins, a shoo-in for the Lions this summer, doesn’t merit a place in the starting XV. The French club field such household names as Bakkies Botha and Carl Hayman amongst the movers and shakers with Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau listed in the backline. And then coach Bernard Laporte needs to decide who to ignore from a back row roster than includes Joe Van Niekerk, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Chris Masoe, Rocky Elsom and Steffon Armitage.
The former France coach has sprung a surprise by plonking Armitage on the bench for this one, going with the physicality of Springbok Danie Rossouw at six and shuffling Pumas’ captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe to seven. Brown goes head to head with the Argentina skipper thanks to an untimely injury to Will Fraser, Sarries’ specialist seven.
“It is disappointing for Will,” concedes the man who is replacing him. “He has had a really good season and it’s a shame that he is missing a showpiece game. But we have strength in depth in the back row and it’s up to whoever is filling in to make sure they keep a lid on the opposition flanker and the other 14 on the field.”
In a week in which it was announced that John Barclay, the last of the “Killer Bs” back row, is moving on from Glasgow, he can take heart from the progress of his former colleagues. Johnnie Beattie’s career has been resurrected at Montpellier and Brown’s progress in North London is obvious to all. The flanker was the stand-out player for Scotland in the Six Nations, his game evidently enhanced by a stint at a Premiership club that has ripped up and rewritten the book on player welfare.
Saracens spoil their squad (including close family) in the belief that a happy team is a productive one. The club famously ferried the players to the Oktoberfest in Munich (when skipper Steve Borthwick was expected at the Heineken launch), they have flown the squad to Florida and only this season the players were skiing in the Alps during a down week, all of which puts team bonding with the Marines at Cultybraggan camp into some sort of perspective. The question remains, does it work? “The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” replies Brown. “Over the last few years we have been there or thereabouts. The whole mindset at Saracens is, we will treat you unbelievably well and all you have to do is work unbelievably hard. Everyone buys into it and it works. I feel lucky to be at a club like Saracens because everything that is written in the press [about the trips abroad] is true. I am happy to be here. The players and their families are looked after extremely well, it’s a good place to play rugby.”
Sarries are obviously doing something right. They were pipped by Leicester in the 2010 Aviva final but they bounced back against the same opposition one year later to take domestic honours. They have established themselves at the top of the English game and now they are looking to conquer the Everest that is the European Cup.
Saracens have never been to the Heineken final and that is just one fact they share with today’s opposition. Both sides are well-backed by enormously wealthy businessmen, Mourad Boudjellal in the case of Toulon, Johann Rupert and Nigel Wray for Saracens, and both teams are fighting on two fronts, domestic and European. Today’s two teams are also similarly Scrooge-like when it comes to offering the opposition something for nothing. Sarries’ defence is the best in England, conceding 1.1 tries per match. Toulon’s is the second best across the channel, conceding 1.2 per match. This afternoon may not be a festival of open running rugby but everyone involved will know they have been in a game. The same cannot be said of every tie Sarries have played this season. They opened their Heineken account with a stroll to victory against Edinburgh when they expected the mother and father of all fights against last season’s semi-finalists.
“We were expecting a tough match and everything fell for us on the day. We were pretty upbeat with how things ended up,” says Brown and who wouldn’t be after a 45-0 win. Even then few could match the exuberance of Kelly Brown’s father who was bouncing about the stadium dressed from head to foot in Saracens’ colours and clearly the only local enjoying the day. Even if he’s not quite frolicking like dad, Junior sounds far too happy to consider moving back to Scotland, at least in the immediate future, but he does keep a watchful eye on the form of his former club who have impressed him this season.
“Friday night is Scottish rugby night,” he says, pleased that BBC Alba is evidently available in England’s Home Countries. “I’m impressed by the pro-teams and Glasgow especially are having a great run in the league. I see a side full of confidence with the ability to beat anyone on their day.” The same is true of Saracens, who will fancy an upset this afternoon.