Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!
Toulouse v Saracens | Saturday 23 January | Stade Ernest Wallon |15:00
The final round of the Champions Cup group stage is set to be an absolute humdinger. The weekend kicks off with a Pool 1 clash between Toulouse and Saracens. Despite both teams having nothing much to play for – Saracens have already qualified for the knockout phase of the tournament while Toulouse’s hopes of qualification were ended two rounds ago – they will still be giving it their all at the Stade Ernest Wallon.
Can Toulouse notch up their second win in this season's competition or will the impressive Saracens end their group stage campaign undefeated?
To Win Match
Toulouse (+2.5) 9/10
Saracens (-2.5) 9/10
While most of the French sides participating in this year’s tournament - bar Racing Metro - have endured below par campaigns, Toulouse have been the worst of the bunch. Ugo Mola’s charges have only managed to record one victory in the Champions Cup this term and have conceded 145 points whilst only scoring 68. Their sole group victory came at home against fellow group strugglers Oyonnax back in November.
While one win from five outings makes for horrible reading, it doesn’t necessarily tell the full tale of Toulouse’s campaign. They’ve had their moments in the competition. One of which came against Ulster a month ago.
Trailing 10-3 when the teams went in for the half-time break, Toulouse came out for the second forty minutes with a refreshing air of determination about them. An early penalty from scrumhalf Sebastian Bezy brought the hosts within four points of their opponents. However, a 45th-minute try from Ireland international Andrew Trimble extended Ulster’s lead to nine points. Toulouse immediately hit back through centre Gael Fickou. Bezy stepped up and converted Fickou’s try to bring Toulouse within two points of Ulster. Paddy Jackson’s 60th-minute penalty and Luke Marshall’s 74th minute converted try would extend Ulster’s lead to nine points heading into the final ten minutes of the game. There was to be late drama, however, with Louis Picamoles crossing the whitewash to bring Toulouse back to within a three points of winning the game. With only a minute left to play, Toulouse were awarded a scrum just outside the Ulster twenty-two. Unfortunately for the french club, they were unable to control the ball at the back of the scrum and an ensuing knock on saw the referee blow the final whistle.
While they showed a lot of grit and determination in the second stanza against Ulster, they severely lacked the same sort of vim and vigour in their opening round fixture against Saracens. Their lacklustre display saw them end up on the wrong side of a 32-7 score line at Allianz Park. And while they’ll have home ground advantage, this time around, I think they may end up getting hammered again. They just don’t have the quality to compete with this star-studded Saracens cast. Yes, they have Thierry Dusautoir, and two of the stand out players of the group phase in Gael Fickou and Yacouba Camara, but their squad is lacking in certain areas. One of these areas has been their second row. While their pack has been stable at scrumtime, they’ve struggled to win their own line-out ball. They’re going to need to rectify this as Saries have one of the most impressive line-outs in the whole of Europe. They’re also going to need Fickou to fire. The young centre has been Toulouse’s most potent attacking weapon this season. His ability to cut his way through an opposition defence will be tested this weekend as he’s coming up against a solid Saries centre pairing.
One of the hallmarks of a great sports team is the ability to bounce back from defeat. Having been handed their first loss of the season by Harlequins a fortnight ago, many thought Saracens spectacular run of form was on the wane. The Wolf Pack are a special bunch, however. They bounced back from that domestic defeat with a big Champions Cup win over Ulster last weekend.
Mark McCall’s men completely dismantled a fired up Ulster side at Allianz Park last Saturday. Pivot Owen Farell was in fantastic fettle once again. The England international slotted two conversions and three penalties. The man playing outside of him also impressed last time out. While Brad Barritt has been the London-based clubs incumbent inside centre for over half a decade now, his young understudy, Duncan Taylor has been extremely impressive while filling in for Barritt. He managed to get his name on the try scorers list and was as solid as a rock on defence.
With a heavy fixtures list and Barritt still struggling with a niggle, I expect Taylor will be given another opportunity to impress this coming weekend. McCall may also opt to give Farell a rest. Veteran ten, Charlie Hodgson will be the man to take Farell’s place. We may actually see a completely overhauled halfback pairing with Richard Wigglesworth likely to be replaced by former Western province nine, Neil de Kock. De Kock is likely to be joined by countrymen Schalk Britz in the run on fifteen with Jamie George dropping to the bench. While Farell and Wigglesworth are likely to miss out due to being rested, their fellow Englishman, Chris Ashton, will definitely miss the game but for a completely different reason. The powerful winger copped a ten-week ban for eye gouging against Ulster last week.
Verdict: Saracens (-2.5) 9/10
They may be away from home but I can’t see Saracens having any trouble defeating an uninspired Toulouse side. Back the hosts to clear the -2.5 margin at 9/10
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