Saracens vs. Toulon: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape the Heineken Cup Final
Saracens and Toulon will meet at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on Saturday in a replica of last season's Heineken Cup semi-final, but the stakes are all the higher this time around as the winner looks to take this year's European title.
On that occasion, the French giants outscored their English opponents by 12 points before claiming the crown with victory over Clermont Auvergne in the final, leaving Mark McCall's side with a thirst for revenge in the Welsh capital.
The lines couldn't be drawn any tighter as first-place finishers of the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 prepare to duke it out in a most enticing affair, with the fixture's biggest head-to-head clashes detailed ahead.
1. Billy Vunipola vs. Steffon Armitage
The 2013-14 campaign has been a monumental one in the career of Billy Vunipola, and a triumphant maiden season at Allianz Park was recently realised with the ex-Wasps enforcer claiming the Premiership's Discovery of the Year award.
True to form, England's first-choice No. 8 is only a week from contributing a Man of the Match performance in the Premiership semi-final against Harlequins and a similarly talismanic display will be required if the youngster is to overcome his opposite man this weekend.
For Toulon's Steffon Armitage is a man in ascendant form, too. Moving step-by-step into a more crucial component of the European outfit's line-up, Armitage may yet find himself competing with Vunipola for England's No. 8 jersey at next year's Rugby World Cup, adding an extra bit of spice to Saturday's clash.
Quite simply, this particular battle will be a marvel to watch for the carrying threat that each player possesses more than anything else, and the peeling off the back of scrums and mauls that each monolith is likely to utilise will decide a great deal of which pack claims an upper hand in the loose.
2. Brad Barritt vs. Matt Giteau
Brad Barritt and Matt Giteau make for an interesting tug-of-war in quite opposite centre styles in Cardiff, the Saracens' man likely to be scrutinised mainly for his tackling ability in restraining the midfield, while Giteau's creative assets will be the main attraction he's expected to produce.
However, it's clear that Barritt, far from the most elaborate of playmakers, will have to be much more than simply a blockade in Giteau and Mathieu Bastareaud's path.
And the England hopeful showed that he can indeed be that penetrative force against Harlequins last week, grabbing a second-half try at a decisive, make-or-break period of the clash.
Quelling Giteau's influence in releasing Toulon's outside weapons—be it from his boot or out of hand—will most likely require a rushed line for the most part. One could well argue that Barritt's work in preventing a man whom some might deem Toulon's most dangerous puppeteer is the most important matchup of the meeting.
3. Jacques Burger vs. Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe
Jacques Burger's credentials as one of the world's most in-form opensides came under big scrutiny last week when the Namibian international took on Quins' Chris Robshaw, but he rose to the occasion in superb fashion.
The individual tests don't end there, though, and it's another massive clash for Burger to consider this weekend as he readies himself for the examination provided by Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe.
Speaking to ESPN Scrum's Tom Hamilton this week, the aforementioned Vunipola called Burger "the best tackler in our team," adding: "It's one of the best things to watch, it's like seeing someone chopping trees. You sometimes stop and just watch him."
Burger certainly won't want his teammates to simply admire his talents as Lobbe looks set to give the Saracens star a great trial of his stopping ability, presenting a one-on-one collision of unstoppable force meets immovable object proportions.
The breakdown will also be of massive importance here, as neither side will want to gift their opponents the slight shot at goal, leading us onto our next key battle.
4. Owen Farrell vs. Jonny Wilkinson
Is there any more a poetic head-to-head than the retiring hero of England's 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph playing a Heineken Cup final against his incumbent, more than a decade down the line, Owen Farrell?
England fly-halves of present and past will face off at the Millennium Stadium in what will be a titillating chess match, except Farrell perhaps brings with him more of the rook's brute physicality with ball in hand than Wilkinson's preferred, queen-like elegance.
That, of course, isn't to say the Saracens No. 10 isn't capable of his own more subtle features, but his Toulon counterpart will need to be a lot more aware of what's coming inside his shoulder than vice-versa should Farrell seek to hit the harder lines himself more frequently.
Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal's plans to retire the No. 10 jersey come the end of Wilkinson's stay as a player at the Stade Mayol is indicative of just how much impact the playmaker has had on the side in recent years.
It goes without saying that the accuracy of this pair's kicking from tee will be of vital significance on the day, with each team likely to take every chance they can get at nipping away at the scoreboard.
But will Wilkinson have one more European showcase to add to his collection, in which his territory kicking and utilisation of the tremendous outlets surrounding him could be all the more important?
5. Chris Ashton vs. Bryan Habana
Chris Ashton is a man in prolific European form right now, having scored four tries in his last two Heineken Cup outings, answering some of the doubts which some hold over whether or not he's a genuine star.
However, one might be justified in still holding some reservations over his defensive work, and it's that exact aspect of his game that Bryan Habana will be putting to the sword in Cardiff.
The South African needs no introduction in terms of the devastation he has the potential to cause. Short and sweet, if the ball gets to the flank that these two will occupy, speed will very much be the name of the game.
However, rather than just a simple foot race being the attraction here, a lot will depend on how those players inside the pair will be able to present them the ball, putting a greater emphasis on the use of fullbacks Alex Goode and Delon Armitage.