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Champions Saracens hand Toulon first home defeat

Sean Maitland

Scotland winger Sean Maitland, who joined Saracens from relegated London Irish in summer, scored the first try of the game

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.

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Farrell, playing for the first time this season because of a back injury, insists that there is more improvement to come from Saracens despite their ground-breaking win.

“It was a great effort to come to a place like this and get a result is a massive scalp,” he said.

“But there are still things to work on, our discipline was not great in the second half and I am sure we will look at that.

“I was a bit stiff coming towards the end of the game. I was ready for that, I was itching to be back out there.”

Forwards to the fore

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Mako Vunipola, superb throughout in the tight and loose, escapes the grasp of Levan Chilachava

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.

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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.

Rare Itoje error almost proves costly

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.

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The match ball was delivered to the Stade Mayol by a military parachutist

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.

The lack of a losing bonus point means that Toulon – who won the tournament three years in succession from 2013 – have plenty to do in a pool completed by Sale and Scarlets.

RC Toulon: Leigh Halfpenny; Josua Tuisova, Matt Carraro, Ma’a Nonu, Bryan Habana; Francois Trinh Duc, Sebastien Tillous-Borde; Florian Fresia, Guilhem Guirado, Levan Chilachava, Samu Manoa, Mamuka Gorgodze, Charles Ollivon, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Duane Vermeulen (capt)

Replacements: Jean-Charles Orioli, Xavier Chiocci, Manasa Saulo, Liam Gill, Mathieu Bastareaud, Pierre Bernard, Eric Escande, Romain Taofifenua

Saracens: Alex Goode; Sean Maitland, Marcelo Bosch, Brad Barritt (capt), Chris Wyles; Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Juan Figallo, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Jackson Wray, Schalk Burger, Billy Vunipola

Replacements: Schalk Brits, Richard Barrington, Petrus du Plessis, Jim Hamilton, Michael Rhodes, Ben Spencer, Alex Lozowski, Michael Ellery

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Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/rugby-union/37617519