Live stream match report: Toulon 23-31 Saracens
Saracens inflicted Toulon’s first-ever home loss in Europe’s top-tier competition as a superb first-half show won a titanic Champions Cup opener.
Sean Maitland dived over and Richard Wigglesworth strolled under the posts as Saracens took control early on.
Chris Wyles rounded off a slick team move just before the break, but Levan Chilachava and Bryan Habana crossed as Toulon rallied in the second half.
But a late Owen Farrell penalty denied the hosts even a losing bonus point.
In their meetings in the 2013 semi-finals and 2014 final, Saracens were outmuscled by Toulon’s fearsome pack and lacked the weapons to dent the French side out wide.
But since those try-less defeats, Saracens’ forwards have added a new dimension to their play and the first-half performance in the Stade Mayol by the champions – they did the Champions Cup/Premiership double last season – must rank among the finest in the club’s history.
While matching the physicality of the likes of Toulon’s Mamuka Gorgodze and Duane Vermeulen, they were quicker, nimbler and more creative around the pitch. Toulon had no answer.
Hooker Jamie George carved through the heart of the Toulon defence to lay on Wigglesworth’s score.
But it was their third try – featuring a side-step and skilful offload from Mako Vunipola and superb hands between second-row pair Maro Itoje and George Kruis to put Wyles into the corner – that summed up their play as their young England forwards excelled.
With New Zealand setting new standards in forward play, this shows that the trend to more mobile play up front is catching on in the northern hemisphere, for some teams at least.
As the home side, 19 points behind, departed to jeers from the boisterous Stade Mayol crowd at the break, it seemed like the match might already be over at the break.
But they emerged re-energised and a lapse in discipline from Itoje – after a world-class opening 40 minutes – gave them a route back into the game.
Composure and clear thinking have been a hallmark of the 21-year-old’s meteoric career so far, but he rashly plunged his hands into a breakdown under the nose of referee John Lacey to earn yellow with his side camped on their own line.
Chilachava drove over from the next phase and Saracens’ depleted defence was stretched out of shape eight minutes later as Habana went in to reduce the lead to just five points.
But with quarter of an hour remaining, Saracens reverted to ruthless percentage rugby.
Even Schalk Burger’s 72-minute sin-binning could not throw them off track as they ground down the clock deep in Toulon territory.
Maitland came within inches of making the game safe, narrowly failed to gather a Brad Barritt grubber, before Farrell did so by landing his final penalty.