Toulon to lead Top 14 fightback against Saracens


Toulon and the Top 14 will be aiming to re-establish their superiority when the three-time winners host champions Saracens on the opening weekend of the European Champions Cup.

The French giants had almost made the competition their own by winning the previous three editions until Racing 92 knocked them out in last year’s quarter-finals.

But the Parisians could not match the might of English champions Saracens in the final and England had their first winners since Wasps beat Leicester in an all-Premiership title-decider in 2007.

Since then the Irish imposed their dominance with four titles in five years before the French took over — six of the last eight finalists have been from the Top 14, with only Sarries breaking the trend.

And the champions will likely be the team to beat this season after demonstrating their power already in their domestic league, returning to the top of the Premiership with a bonus-point victory over previously unbeaten Wasps on Sunday.

Sarries will also likely welcome back England fly-half Owen Farrell, perhaps even to the starting line-up, on Saturday.

“If everything goes to plan, he (Farrell) could go straight into the team for this weekend — he’s an influential member of the squad and it’s good to have him around the team,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall.

Farrell has been suffering from a back injury but warmed up with Saracens ahead of the Wasps match, although he didn’t play.

England hooker Jamie George scored a brace of tries in that 30-14 victory and feels it has set the champions up well for what will likely be their toughest group stage test.

“This is a huge game to start the Champions Cup pool stage, but we are in a great position going to Toulon. We have created really good momentum with our win over Wasps,” he told the Evening Standard.

Toulon, for their part, have been a mixed bag all season and drew 17-17 at La Rochelle last weekend, needing a late penalty just to snatch that result.

They are fourth in the Top 14 having already lost three times this season, including at home to minnows Brive.

– Racing disarray –

But the French as a whole will certainly prove tough challengers for final honours.

Racing have made no secret this season that Europe is their priority having won the Top 14 back in June but lost to Sarries the month before in the Champions Cup final.

They are in some disarray, though, after revelations about three of their players, including All Black great Dan Carter, having tested positive for a corticosteroid following the Top 14 final victory over Toulon — the other two were New Zealander Joe Rokocoko and Juan Imhoff of Argentina.

They’ve not been accused of any wrong-doing but Racing have struggled in the league this season and are down in eighth having lost all four away games so far.

Fortunately, though, they begin at home to two-time champions Munster.

The Irish province will be looking to lead a fightback from the Emerald Isle after none of the Celtic League representatives managed to get out of last year’s pool stages.

But their pool is incredibly tough with Glasgow and Leicester, who get things underway on Friday night.

Ulster have perhaps the best chance in Pool 5 alongside Clermont, Exeter and Bordeaux-Begles, but Leinster will have their work cut out to get through from Pool 4.

They start at home to Castres but also face Northampton and Montpellier.

Only the five group winners guarantee qualification for the quarter-finals, alongside the best three runners-up.

Pool 2 should provide one of those as it includes hapless Italians Zebre, who start their campaign away to Wasps and come into the match on the back of five straight defeats to start their Celtic League campaign.

Celtic League champions Connacht are also in that group, alongside record four-time European champions Toulouse.

© 2016 AFP

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