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Saracens scale Toulon fortress with 31-23 thriller

Luke Phillips
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Owen Farrell (right) takes on RC Toulon's Mathieu Bastareaud (left) and Ma'a Nonu (C) at the Mayol stadium in Toulon on October 15, 2016

Owen Farrell (right) takes on RC Toulon's Mathieu Bastareaud (left) and Ma'a Nonu (C) at the Mayol stadium in Toulon on October 15, 2016 (AFP Photo/Boris Horvat)

Paris (AFP) - Saracens, led brilliantly by the returning Owen Farrell, got the defence of their European title off to a dream start by beating three-time former champions Toulon 31-23 in a thriller on Saturday.

In a re-run of the 2013 final won by Toulon, Saracens scored three first-half tries through Sean Maitland, Richard Wigglesworth and Chris Wyles, allied with Farrell's trusty boot, to set up the win -- the first defeat Toulon had ever conceded at home in 18 European matches.

But Toulon, with Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny keeping the scoreboard ticking from the tee, roared back, scoring two converted tries through Levan Chilachava and Bryan Habana when England lock Maro Itoje had been yellow carded in the second period of the Pool 3 encounter.

"Thankfully we came out on top," said Saracens No 8 Billy Vunipola.

"We don't talk about records but Toulon have a rich history recently, and for us to come out here and take that mantle away from them, it's credit to the boys."

Vunipola added: "We gave away a lot of territory with our ill-discipline, but when the going got tough we stuck in there and we came out on top."

Farrell and Halfpenny exchanged early penalties before Kiwi-born Scotland winger Maitland scored a brilliant try in the corner in the ninth minute, riding tackles from Ma'a Nonu and Halfpenny to dot down one-handed.

A frantic start saw both sides, boasting a veritable international who's who of world rugby, keen to spread the ball around.

But the home side failed to get a real foothold in attack and when Saracens hooker Jamie George caught Nonu cold to split Toulon's line, a smart inside offload saw scrum-half Wigglesworth run in for an easy second try.

American winger Wyles went over for Saracens' third try, Itoje doing well to fix the final defender and deliver the scoring pass.

Farrell converted for a 25-6 half-time lead as the home side were jeered off the park.

Halfpenny booted his third penalty early in the second period, but Toulon's woes were compounded when Nonu was yellow carded for a tip tackle and Farrell extended Saracens' lead to 28-9.

Itoje was then sin-binned for killing the ball as Toulon pressed through their forwards, the pressure showing when Georgian prop Chilachava drove over, Halfpenny converting.

The traditional newspaper-throwing antics among the Stade Mayol crowd erupted after Habana sprinted in for Toulon's second, Halfpenny's conversion bringing the home side to within five points.

Saracens' Springbok flanker Schalk Burger saw yellow late on, but Farrell steadied the English side's nerves with a last-gasp penalty to deny Toulon a losing bonus point.

Toulon's Fiji wing Josua Tuisova suffered a "serious" left ankle injury, coach Diego Dominguez reported.

"I think it's serious, he's gone to hospital, it's the ankle," said Dominguez, who added: "We could have won it at the end but after a first-half like that we didn't deserve to."

Pool 3's late game saw Welsh side Scarlets defeat Sale 28-11.

In Pool 4, three-time former winners Leinster claimed a bonus-point 33-15 win over French outfit Castres, with later Northampton edging Montpellier 16-14.

Earlier in the day, England fly-half Danny Cipriani led Wasps to a 12-try trouncing of Italian whipping boys Zebre 82-14 in Pool 2.

Last season's beaten semi-finalists, forced into just four tackles in the opening quarter of an hour, ran up a 42-14 lead at half-time.

Zebre, who have never won a match in Europe, scored two converted tries through replacement Federico Ruzza.

But that was the sole blot on Wasps' copybook, with Springbok Willie Le Roux and Wallaby Kurtley Beale yet to feature for the club's already-sparkling backline.

Wasps scored tries through Rob Miller (2), Jake Cooper-Woolley, Joe Simpson (2), Frank Halai, Ashley Johnson, Eliot Daly, Joe Launchbury, Josh Bassett, James Gaskell and Dan Robson.

Pool 2's other game ended with Connacht beating Toulouse 23-21.

Glasgow launched their campaign with a crushing 42-13 victory over Leicester on Friday, Pool 1 rivals Racing 92 playing Munster on Sunday.