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French week ends in style for Saints

Travis PerkinsSponsored by Travis Perkins

The Saints will rarely have a match with more contradictions this season - playing the French champions, Toulouse, in an environment familiar from National League One, and in conditions more akin to the Cote d'Azur than the cold, wind and rain normally associated with a winter sport.


The Vaquerin Challenge was named after a prop, Armand Vaquerin, who had played "with passion", and despite the running showed by both teams in the opening exchanges the crowd of two thousand or so first came to life when Yannick Nyanga turned on the power, driving into a couple of Saints.


He had been brought into the play by Clement Poitreneaud, and Toulouse's host of established internationals helped them take a first shot at the sticks, a wayward drop goal attempt from Nicolas Bezy.


Phil Dowson had made a crucial tackle in the build-up, and for the second time in a week the travellers had to see one of their number leave the field early. And there was another carry-over from Wednesday's game, too, as the French outfit scored an early try.


Bezy's break had given Toulouse the territory, and while Saints held out the initial charges to earn a scrum, an early engagement handed the Top 14 giants the ball back. A couple of phases of play later they were over, prop Yoann Montes crashing over from close range.


Yves Donguy also crossed five minutes later, making the most of a turnover to sprint in from long range - despite Tom May's valiant attempted tackle that had initially seemed to have knocked the winger into touch - but as these things so often seem to go, the best move of the match so far did not yield a try.


A myriad of Toulouse players were involved, keeping play alive in their trademark style and steadily working their way upfield, only for the ball to go loose while the hand was reaching for the whitewash.


After spending so much time on the back foot, Saints ended the opening quarter camped on the French line. Their approach was much more direct, a pair of rolling mauls challenging Toulouse's pack. But just as the Stade eight looked to have responded by forcing a fumble Saints came up with a scrum that had the home fans audible in their admiration.


The power won the ball back, and another set piece drive went remorselessly towards the line. Unfortunately the ball came loose, and while Saints kept the ball alive well - Samu Manoa showing that Americans have good hands, too - Toulouse came up with a powerful double tackle on May to win the penalty and clear.


But the centre - who until last season had been plying his trade in Toulon - got some revenge almost immediately, grabbing up a loose ball to break, hurdling the last man and putting in motion a scoring move. Paul Diggin and James Craig exchanged passes, the flanker dotting down unopposed, and with Stephen Myler's conversion Saints had pulled the score back to 12-7.


Then all of a sudden Toulouse fell apart. Where once there had been confidence there was now uncertainty, and twice Stade's failure to deal with the high ball cost them.


First to take advantage was Roger Wilson, who finished off a third consecutive five-metre scrum that fractured Toulouse's effort completely and would surely have earned a penalty try in Aviva Premiership Rugby regardless.


That time it had been the back three who looked at each other while the ball bounced after Myler had sent it skywards. And within a couple of minutes this disease had spread to Shaun Sowerby, the back rower misplacing a Martin Roberts box kick completely and allowing Diggin to put Calum Clark in unopposed.


All of a sudden Saints were leading 19-12 and when the half-time whistle blew a visibly shell shocked Toulouse outfit stayed out in the sun to take the heat from manager, Guy Noves.


When play resumed the rollocking looked to have worked. Yannick Jauzion, who still oozes class, was making an immediate difference, and although Toulouse were more stuttering than in the first period they were retaining ball well.


That was until Bezy's hands failed him while looking for space, and when Adam Eustace broke from deep his interplay with Myler put Noah Cato away down the wing to score.


Myler's conversion made it 26-12, but just when it looked like Saints may be able to relax somewhat Toulouse showed why they are regarded so highly by scoring a breakaway try out of seemingly nothing. Rupeni Caucaunibuca - another half-time replacement - broke clear and fed Timoc Matanavou for the score.


And just as quickly as that, the spark had returned to Les Toulousain. Another break from deep had Saints scrambling, and with Jauzion pulling the strings they headed towards the hour mark very much on the front foot.


That's not to say they got the points they wanted. Instead right on the stroke of the drinks break Saints struck again. The forwards once again provided the platform, tying in their opponents with another powerful scrum drive, and although Lee Dickson quite possibly could have gone himself his unselfish play created the try for Greig Tonks in the right corner.


With a 14-point lead the Saints coaches emptied the bench, giving those players who had suffered at the hands of Castres the chance to test themselves against the Toulouse team that will more than likely start their Top 14 challenge next Friday.


And aside from an odd fumble here and forward pass there, the game was closed out superbly well. The forwards carried on driving, the backs kept putting the ball in the right places, and tackles a-plenty kept Toulouse at bay, and although it has to be remembered that it is just a pre-season game the Saints players and coaches will no doubt be heading home with a lot of satisfaction from this performance and result.


TIMELINE

5mins TOUL Miss DG Bezy

10mins TOUL Try Montes Con Bezy 7-0

15mins TOUL Try Donguy 12-0

25mins SAINTS Try Craig Con Myler 12-7

36mins SAINTS Try Wilson Con Myler 12-14

39mins SAINTS Try Clark 12-19

HALF-TIME TOULOUSE 12 SAINTS 19

47mins SAINTS Try Cato Con Myler 12-26

50mins TOUL Try Matanavou 17-26

60mins SAINTS Try Tonks 17-31

FULL-TIME TOULOUSE 17 SAINTS 31