In a match where everyone predicted that the international juggernaut known as Toulon would carve their place in history by winning the European Championship three years in a row, there were very few surprises. While we may not have got much of a sense of what the World Cup may look like from a French perspective by watching Toulon, we got a very clear indication that if they get the coaching right at the national level there is much on offer from Clermont. Although Clermont have their fair share of star internationals, the core of this team and its strengths is distinctly French and as we saw last weekend, when it clicks and fires in the right order holds plenty of promise and excitement. French rugby is very much alive and while there are a myriad of issues at the national management level there is plenty to draw on from the club level.
Clermont Auvergne vs Toulon
Saturday, May 2nd
First off while many thought that the anomaly of playing an all French final for this year’s competition would make Twickenham’s vast space seem rather empty, we were for the most part proved wrong. Yes there were a lot of empty seats but there was still a sizeable presence of ardent Clermont and Toulon faithful despite the logistical expense of getting there. Hardcore members of the Yellow Army were evident throughout the stands complete with drums and horns and the Toulon faithful made sure they were able to match the noise. In short, there was more than an enough of an atmosphere to set the tone for a tense final full of tension and spectacle.
Ultimately there were few surprises in the final result despite a spirited comeback from Clermont in the final quarter. The collective experience of Toulon’s all-star team was enough to get them through the pressure points and keep Clermont in check. The debate about foreign players detracting from the true nature of a club competition such as this will rage long after the final whistle and is a worthwhile debate but on the day the better team won. Furthermore in the professional era, while I do think there needs to be some control on foreign player numbers lest our great game starts on the slippery road that European football has taken, it is inevitable that players and clubs will seek out the most rewarding opportunities available, particularly given a player’s relatively short playing career in the top echelons of world rugby. Anyway enough said and back to the actual game.
Despite all the concern that the game for all intents and purposes was a dress rehearsal for a possible French domestic final, I found that the match had plenty to offer for a neutral spectator such as myself looking to see some high quality international rugby. Clermont, as everyone predicted they would, took the game to Toulon right from the get go, initially scoring from penalty kicks as relentless and quick Clermont attacks forced Toulon into defensive errors. You could tell that there were nerves aplenty when one of Clermont’s opening three pointers came from an uncharacteristic error from Toulon’s Leigh Halfpenny. France and Clermont’s Wesley Fofana who has rediscovered some blistering form in the last few months just in time for the World Cup was first to score a try for Clermont as they had been threatening to do all first quarter.
Throughout the first half, Clermont looked the team that wanted this the most and within the first half hour a comfortable 11-3 lead looked like the pendulum was finally going to swing in their favour and make this third attempt at silverware the lucky one. However, the international brains trust at Toulon regrouped and quickly struck back, first through the boot of Halfpenny and then French battering ram aka centre Mathieu Bastareaud took advantage of a wayward kick from Clermont’s Nick Abendanon and smashed over the try line from out wide. All of a sudden Abendanon who has been one of the out-and-out stars of this European season wasn’t looking so good under pressure.
You could tell that the legacy of England World Cup winner Johnny Wilkinson at Toulon had made Toulon the firm favourites of the English spectators at Twickenham as evidenced by the singing of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at key moments in the match for Toulon. Toulon made sure they honored this and as the second half got underway they steadily asserted their dominance over Clermont who suddenly looked overwhelmed and appeared to be running out of ideas as they faced the prospect of being rugby’s ultimate runners-up yet again. However, just when you thought it was all over for Clermont and their Yellow Army, they suddenly found the spark they needed and came back hard in an enthralling fifteen minutes of rugby in the last quarter. Obviously feeling enormous remorse for his error at the end of the first half and determined to make his presence felt and noticed by English selectors in attendance at Twickenham, Englishman Nick Abendanon scored one of the most sublime tries of the entire tournament. Habana made a mess of a clearance for Toulon, that was eagerly picked up by Abendanon who then made the perfect chip into space for himself to pick up on and score right between the posts after some masterful weaving through Toulon defences. His vision and presence of mind in short were breathtaking. Clermont were right back in contention at 1 point behind as Toulon held the match at 19-18. Was history about to be written in Clermont’s favour?
Obviously not to be outdone by Abendanon’s magic, Australia’s Drew Mitchell decided to show some flair of his own after Toulon dominated the restart. Skipping his way from almost the halfway mark Mitchell managed to evade six Clermont tackles and put Toulon back in the driving seat. Nevertheless there were still only five points in it and Clermont could still pull off a miracle and for the remainder of the match they pulled out all the stops to do so. A blistering run from Mike Delany had many believing it was about to happen. However, Toulon were simply too experienced and clinical at the breakdown and ultimately did enough to just keep Clermont away from the try line. In the end whether it was nerves or exhaustion or probably a combination of the two, Clermont fluffed one or two key opportunities including missing a kick to touch which would have given them a lineout in the Toulon 22 with minutes left on the clock. Toulon by comparison held their nerve and just looked the part. They knew they were about to make history and did enough to make sure that the spotlight would focus squarely on them when Nigel Owens blew the final whistle for a game that had provided plenty of spectacle and excitement.
It’s been a great season in Europe and provided us all with much food for thought and hours of debate in pubs and bars across the continent at both the Six Nations and European Champions Cup level. As we head into the World Cup and focus our attention on the Southern Hemisphere international competitions, Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, there can be little doubt that this season has provided the Six Nations sides with some superb preparation. England, Wales and Ireland are looking very strong and as evidenced particularly by Clermont there is cause for some healthy optimism in France. There is still plenty of work to do but also much to build on. Europe is strong and is increasingly playing the kind of rugby that can provide a challenge to the try scoring abilities of their Southern Hemisphere opponents. The World Cup is looking better and better with every replay!