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Saracens star Maro Itoje is determined to book a home European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final in their Pool 3 decider with RC Toulon.
Mark McCall’s men know they will be back at Allianz Park in the last-eight if they can repeat their Round 1 victory over the three-time champions. But Toulon know a shock bonus-point triumph in North London would them through as Pool 3 winners on their head-to-head match points against Sarries.
Toulon stayed in the quarter-final race with a 27-12 triumph over Sale, while Saracens salvaged a draw at the Scarlets in Round 5. The European champions top the pool on 20 points, and Itoje is out to complete the double over their rivals from France.
He said: “It’s something that we want, getting a home quarter-final increases you’re chances slightly. It’s not the be-all and end-all but it’s something we are aspiring towards. Toulon are a tough team they have a plethora of talent from one to 23. Their team is full of quality internationals so it’s never easy.
“They’re a big side as well so it will be taxing in that regard, but it’s a challenge we are looking forward to. The atmosphere at Allianz Park for the Exeter game was one of the best I’ve experienced at home. I have no doubt it will be a similar situation this weekend.”
Toulon bounced back from defeat at Scarlets to stag a second-half show and claim a bonus-point win over Sale and remain five behind Saracens at the top of the Pool. Bryan Habana is expected to extend his stay at Stade Mayol, and he is hoping to reach another Champions Cup quarter-final.
He said: “For us, the goal is just to win. If you go there trying to work out what you have to get then your mindset is going to be all wrong. The message from Mike and the leaders this week has been that we go there to win, and everything after that is a bonus. We can only focus on winning the game and getting to the quarter-finals.”
- Saracens are sure of qualification for the last eight and a win on Saturday would also guarantee them a home quarter-final. A win for Toulon, and they will also book their place in the knockout stage.
- Saracens have won their last two fixtures against Toulon in European competition including the Round 1 match at Stade Mayol, but the holders lost two knockout games against their rivals in between those wins (2013 semi-final and 2014 final).
- Saracens have won their last 11 home games in Europe, averaging 42 points in that run.
- Saracens' draw with Scarlets in Round 5 prevented them breaking the record for most consecutive wins in the competition (still tied with Munster on 13).
- Saracens are one of just two sides (Munster are the other) yet to concede a first half try this season.
- Toulon have won their last two away games against Aviva Premiership opposition, despite failing to score 20 points in both those wins.
- Saracens have opted to kick the ball in open play more often than any other side (28 times per game on average).
- Toulon and Saracens have success rates of 90% + at both lineout and scrum this season – Leinster are the only other side to achieve this.
- Owen Farrell has five try assists this season, equal best with Connacht's Jack Carty and Conor Murray of Munster.
- Only Leinster captain, Isa Nacewa (75), has scored more points than Owen Farrell (74) or Leigh Halfpenny (67) this season.
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Had Josua Tuisova touched down for what seemed a certain try in the first-half at Allianz Park then RC Toulon may well have come away with a famous win.
But inside of diving over in the right corner on the 4G pitch, the flying Fijian wing tried to place the ball one-handed and lost control at the vital moment. Saracens breathed again, having only just stopped Bryan Habana on the line moments earlier, and eventually ground out a 10-3 win.
The scoreboard barely moved all game and there was only a solitary Owen Farrell penalty to register in an intense first-half. Toulon arrived knowing the bare minimum for them was a losing bonus point if they wanted to keep alive their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals.
The quest for reigning champions Saracens was to book a home tie in the last eight by posting a fifth win of the campaign to go with last weekend’s last-gasp draw at Parc y Scarlets. That’s why the close shaves from both sides – Marcello Bosh was held up on the line for Saracens – will have left the coaches wondering what might have been.
In his 50th appearance in the European Cup, Farrell managed a penalty and a conversion of Chris Ashton’s 34th European Cup try – and against the team he will be joining in the summer. His second half effort left Toulon teetering on the brink of extinction, but a 45 metre penalty from Leigh Halfpenny brought them back into bonus-point territory in the end.
The Wales and British & Irish Lions full back hit the post with another wide angled shot and Toulon came close to forcing a draw at the death. Now they will have to prepare for a trip to No 1 ranked side ASM Clermont Auvergne in the quarter-finals.