As the Lineout, spends its last two weeks in Europe before setting up shop in the Southern Hemisphere until August and preparations for the World Cup, we look at the upcoming inaugural European Champions Cup Final between Clermont Auvergne and Toulon. Although this clash perhaps lacks the international nature of the competition in that it is between two French sides and also ironically is likely to be a dress rehearsal for the final of the French domestic competition, it nevertheless holds plenty of interest and the potential for a fast and exciting contest. As with most French teams the international aspect of rugby is well represented particularly in the case of Toulon, which is essentially a World XV, but even Clermont has a strong international flavour to its composition in the form of Jonathan Davies, Nick Abendanon, Jamie Cudmore and Brock James. However, of the two sides one could argue that Clermont is easily the most French in composition and for all those watching to see what France’s World Cup squad should look like, there surely must be a lot to be excited about in the case of Clermont.
Clermont-Auvergne vs Toulon
Saturday, May 2nd
As mentioned above, despite the fact that only one country of the six nations competing in this year’s inaugural European Champions Cup is represented in this year’s final, it still holds much to look forward to. The fact that it is an all French final in Twickenham of all places, the spiritual heart of English rugby also provides us with plenty to think about. Will Clermont’s fervent Yellow Army of supporters turn up and raise the sound barrier at Twickenham? Will the fact that Toulon boasts some stellar English players such as Delon and Stefon Armitage along with Johnny Wilkinson’s legacy at the club, be enough to bring enough English fans to the game to fill Twickenham’s vast space? Either way, if people think that just because it is an all French final being played in England makes it not worth watching, they are likely to be sadly mistaken. These are two giants of the international club rugby scene who are both trying to make history on Saturday. Clermont to lift the European trophy for the first time after so many times finishing second in Europe, while Toulon aim to make history and be the first team to ever wear the European crown three years in a row. It doesn’t get much more intense than this!
Despite Toulon’s massive international firepower, I can’t help feeling that the day may ultimately swing in Clermont’s favour. While Toulon may boast the likes of Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams, both these players are at the end of their careers, and this is Springbok legend Botha’s last ever professional appearance. Although they may be at the end of their careers rest assured that they will want to end on a high. While some of Toulon’s international all-stars may be at the end of their careers, others such as Wales’ Halfpenny are showing some of their best form in years. Add to this proven danger men such as South Africa’s Bryan Habana; the Armitage pair particularly Stefon who surely will be the focus of attention by England’s selectors despite the ban on foreign based players, and the likes of Juan Smith, Matt Giteau and Argentina’s Lobbe and Hernandez make this is a formidable team to beat. Despite this though from what I have seen Toulon is beatable and especially in the second half. Clermont has more youthful energy on their side and their blistering try scoring ability in this tournament, through the likes of Abendanon, Fofana and Nakaitaci will be a serious challenge to Toulon if they start to falter.
From a French perspective Clermont is the most interesting side to watch as they have more French content than Toulon and there are already a raft of French players sticking their hand up for selection for the World Cup. Parra, Chouly, Debaty, Lopez, Fofana and Nakaitaci are all players who surely will be part of Phillipe Saint-Andre’s plans come September.
The battle of the two Australian fly-halves will be fascinating. Toulon’s Matt Giteau is already being touted as getting the nod for the World Cup, and Clermont’s Brock James, while unlikely to make the cut for the Wallabies is nevertheless showing some serious form at the moment. However, under pressure my money would be on Giteau to win the battle here, unless replacement fly half for Clermont Camille Lopez can make some much-needed inroads alongside Morgan Parra later in the match.
In the forward battle the contest between two of rugby’s most famous bad boys, Canadian Jamie Cudmore for Clermont and South Africa’s Bakkies Botha will be intense. Botha is renowned for niggling the most disciplined of forwards and Cudmore probably has enough yellow cards to last him a lifetime. However, in the semi-final game against Leinster, Cudmore showed more discipline than usual and knowing that Botha will be trying his best to rile him, if the big Canadian can keep his cool and lead his forwards by example then I think Clermont has the fitter and more structured forward pack. Meanwhile Damien Chouly for Clermont is going to have his work cut out for him trying to contain Toulon’s irrepressible Stefon Armitage. Armitage is on fire at the moment and is a one man wrecking machine when it comes to opposition forward attacking play.
One big question mark for Toulon is whether or not Frederic Michalak will be called off the bench. Either a massive liability or a game winner, Michalak was the former in the semi-final and the latter in the quarter-final. If I was coach Laporte I would err on the side of keeping him on the bench unless Giteau for some reason doesn’t fire, which given his current form is unlikely. For Clermont, it remains to be seen whether or not Camille Lopez can find the form he showed as Clermont’s starting flyhalf in the pool stages of the competition and which dramatically left him in his appearances for France in the Six Nations.
If it remains close to the final quarter, and Clermont is just ahead of Toulon in the try department then I would put my money on Clermont finally lifting the Cup. If Clermont are not scoring tries and the score is close in favour of Toulon come the last quarter then Clermont will be forced into chasing the game and here their relative lack of experience when matched against Toulon’s will probably be their undoing. However, I feel that Clermont has the edge in terms of pace and fitness, so unless Toulon can use their experience to tactically outplay them, then it will be Clermont’s day. It is unlikely that Clermont will be adventurous to the point that they start chucking risky passes to their exceptionally talented and quick backline, unless they end up chasing the game in the last twenty minutes. As we saw in the semi-final between Leinster and Toulon, if you start chasing the game against Toulon then you will make mistakes and the likes of Habana and co will make you pay dearly for them.
In short, I think that if Clermont can strike hard fast and quick and establish and early lead and then use their forwards to consolidate it for 60 minutes they have the potential to put Toulon in a position of having it all to do in the second half. Based on Toulon’s second half performances this year, if they are behind they can be beaten. Therefore expect Clermont to come out of the blocks firing for the first twenty minutes, hold the game for the middle forty minutes and then provide a killer finishing blow to a tired and rattled Toulon in the last quarter. I may be wrong, but Clermont by five at the end of the day – either way I think this will be 80 minutes worth watching!