European Challenge Cup: Toulon 25-16 Saracens – Gabin Villiere’s double sinks Sarries to set up all-French final

Fiji winger Jiuta Wainiqolo flies over for the game’s decisive score
Toulon (15) 25
Tries: Villiere 2, Wainiqolo Cons: Carbonel 2 Pens: Carbonel 2
Saracens (13) 16
Try: Earl Con: Farrell Pens: Farrell 3

Toulon edged out Saracens at Stade Felix Mayol to set up an all-French European Challenge Cup final with Lyon.

Gabin Villiere’s double book-ended Ben Earl’s try and five points from Owen Farrell as Toulon edged 15-13 ahead at half-time.

Louis Carbonel and Farrell traded penalties before Jiuta Wainiqolo crossed to give the hosts a 25-16 lead.

The hosts repelled Sarries pressure to reach their fourth Challenge Cup final in Marseille on 27 May.

With Saracens searching for a way back into the game, the Television Match Official ruled that Callum Hunter-Hill’s late dart for the line was held up by Eben Etzebeth, summing up Toulon’s superb defensive performance.

It also told the story of a frustrating night for Saracens, who struggled to find any rhythm, save for a 20-minute spell in the first half, and slid to a fourth defeat in four Challenge Cup semi-finals.

The tie was a mouth-watering clash between two European heavyweights – Toulon having won the Champions Cup three years running from 2013 to 2015 before Sarries lifted the trophy three times in the next four seasons.

Their first meeting since 2016-17 produced a seesaw first half as a Toulon side boasting 11 internationals drew first blood, regathering possession following Baptiste’s Serin’s kick before Villiere crossed in the corner.

Farrell’s penalty put the Premiership side on the board, and when his second attempt hit the post, Earl charged down Serin’s attempted clearance and dived on the loose ball to give Sarries the lead.

Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola
Maro Itoje and Mako Vunipola walk off after defeat in Toulon

Toulon were given an early warning for a string of misdemeanours as the Londoners turned the screw, Farrell landing his second penalty to edge them further in front.

Billy Vunipola denied Villiere, but after Carbonel landed a penalty and missed another, the France international wing did claim his second try, finishing off a brilliant flowing move with the last play of the half to edge Toulon back in front.

Elliot Daly’s long-range penalty attempt from halfway landed just wide, before Villiere won a penalty at the breakdown and Carbonel’s boot gave the French side a five-point lead.

Saracens struggled to find rhythm against Toulon’s physicality, but clawed their way back with another Farrell penalty.

Yet just moments later, Toulon produced what proved the knockout blow on the hour mark with another stylish try as Fijian winger Wainiqolo cut in and left three defenders standing to cross under the posts.

As the visitors kicked a penalty to the corner, Toulon underlined their defensive might with another huge turnover on their own line, to win a scrum and blunt Sarries’ hopes of a first Challenge Cup final.

Saracens did not ‘deal with occasion’ – reaction

Saracens captain Owen Farrell:

“We are obviously disappointed with the result but probably more with the performance, especially in that first half.

“I feel like we could have given a better account of ourselves, especially in some areas we pride ourselves on. We will have to look inwards now, and we need to make sure it spurs us on for the rest of the season.

“We couldn’t string too much together today. Massive credit to Toulon in the way they defended, and how they slowed down our breakdown in particular.

“It was hard to play against. We need to make sure we figure out why, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall:

“It didn’t feel like we dealt with the occasion all that well. It was our first time back in an occasion like this.

“We need to see what we can learn from it. I’m not sure who did or who didn’t (play well) but it doesn’t take many for your team to be off.

“Toulon were supercharged tonight, and the crowd was as well. We’ve got four or five weeks left of the season, and we can get something from this experience and take it into the rest of the Premiership season.”

Toulon: Luc; Wainiqolo, Smaili, Paiai’aua, Villiere; Carbonel, Serin; Gros, Tolofua, Gigashvili, Etzebeth, Alainu’uese, Du Preez, Ollivon, Parisse

Replacements: Etrillard, Devaux, Setiano, Lakafia, Isa, Rebbadj, Belleau, Blanc.

Saracens: Goode; Malins, Daly, Tompkins, Segun; Farrell (capt), Davies; M Vunipola, George, Koch, Itoje, Isiekwe, McFarland, Earl, B Vunipola.

Replacements: Pifeleti, Mawi, Wainwright, Hunter-Hill, Venter, Van Zyl, Taylor, Lozowski.

Referee: Andrew Brace (Ire)

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