By: Mick Cleary, Rugby Correspondent
They have been pretenders to the European throne, semi-finalists last season, unbeaten in the Premiership this season, and can show they are a team with true pretensions if they carry on in that vein at their adopted home.
Toulouse remain the benchmark for any side with aspirations. They bring glamour, class and pedigree to the Heineken Cup experience, their side exuding menace. Toulon’s cast of galacticos may have captured top-billing in winning the Heineken Cup last season but Toulouse remain the country’s European standard-bearer.
Saracens are well equipped to deliver. They have several England hopefuls in their ranks looking to make a mark ahead of the autumn Tests: from the wrecking-ball that is Billy Vunipola, selected on the flank, to born-again wing Chris Ashton, who has recaptured the zest and prowess of former times.
Centre Joel Tomkins will also be itching to get involved from the bench, more familiar than any with the wide open Wembley spaces having blazed a trail of glory there two years ago in the colours of Wigan Warriors.
That Challenge Cup final victory over Leeds Rhinos was given huge impetus by Tomkins’ 80-metre try, teed-up by brother Sam, the sort of individual prowess that England hope to bring to the fore over the next month. Three players, three different roles, with so much resting on the outcome of their performances.
The Vunipola brothers, prop Mako along with new recruit Billy, have invigorated Saracens. There is more depth and dash to their play, a bolder, more attacking stance, all predicated around the rumbling upfield runs of the pair, brothers grim if you get in their way. Saracens wings Ashton and David Strettle have had a field day.
“No back can see space in front of him unless the forwards have done their job,” said England backs coach, and former Saracens head coach, Andy Farrell.
“Saracens are profiting on the back of great go-forward. The amount of carrying the boys have done, especially Billy, has been great. We have not seen anything like all he can do yet. The kid has got great hands and skill but he is such a force going forward, sucking in two or three every time. It’s exciting.”
While Strettle has nabbed the tries, Ashton has caught the eye. He cut a forlorn figure at the end of England’s Six Nations campaign, out of sorts on the field, a lost soul. He did not make the British and Irish Lions squad nor was he taken on England’s tour to Argentina as Stuart Lancaster felt he needed to recharge. The strategy has paid off.
“He has dealt with things superbly,” said Farrell.
“You can see the fire and hunger back in him. The main thing, though, is his intent. You can see he just wants to get on with it without any excuses. He is letting his rugby do the talking. Everyone has a slump at some stage. The important thing is that Chris has stopped the circle going right down to the bottom. He remains a great finisher. His X-factor is his ability to score tries. The X-factor is what makes you special. Even though Chris has slightly adapted his game, whenever there is a break he is there. You want your wing to have try-scoring ability.”
As for Tomkins, he may be a union novice at this level but his rugby league background has steeled him for such occasions.
“Joel will have good memories of Wembley,” said Farrell, no stranger himself to the Wembley effect from his own days in league and one of those instrumental in bringing Tomkins to Saracens. “It is a big game for a few people, a chance to test themselves against the best. They don’t come much bigger than Toulouse at Wembley.”
Friday’s match could herald the start of a defining four weeks for Tomkins, from Wembley to Twickenham, a comparatively short step in distance but a journey of considerable difficulty for the player who signed off in league shortly after that Challenge Cup triumph in 2011.
“Being able to translate skills, from league to union, is difficult,” said Farrell. “I didn’t [manage it, although injury hampered his transition]. The hardest thing, especially for an influential player used to getting his hands on the ball and having an impact in league, is that you don’t always get that opportunity in union.
“You are guaranteed the ball in league, and not so in union. You think you will be judged on how you do with ball in hand. But that’s not the case. It can be frustrating. But there are loads of other things, the breakdown, the kicking, when to offload, when to not offload. Joel has got that now, he knows what it is about.”
He will have to show all that poise and awareness at Wembley, as will his team-mates, chastened by their narrow escape last week against Connacht. Saracens have new arrival, Argentine centre Marcelo Bosch, on the bench alongside Tomkins while Toulouse push Clement Poitrenaud into the centre with Maxime Medard at fullback.
Thierry Dusautoir is restored to the back row, where he puts his being and body on the line against Jacques Burger.
One of the world’s most famous stadiums is a suitably grandiose backdrop for such oval-ball gladiators.
Saracens v Toulouse will be broadcast on SuperSport 6 at 20:30 tonight