Five reasons Toulon cannot be stopped

Date published: December 6 2015

With the season approaching the festive period, the focus turns to 2016 and who will be pushing hard for honours. Can anyone stop Toulon?

Yes they lost away to Wasps in Europe but that appears to have been a wake-up call as several players come back from Rugby World Cup duty. Since then they have been outstanding as wins at Clermont and at home to Agen put down a marker to their Top 14 and Champions Cup rivals.

Following that big victory at the Marcel Michelin, the bookmakers cut their price for European glory and it's easy to see why as they look every bit like champions in waiting again, with only Saracens serious rivals for the Champions Cup title in Lyon next May.

So we've picked out five reasons why this Toulon side might be a cut above again in Europe, with a fourth successive title on the cards.

Samu Manoa: Northampton Saints supporters bemoaned the loss of Manoa at the end of last season and it is easy to see why. The USA international is an outstanding forward who continues on his upward curve in a late start to his professional career. Manoa is now 30 but playing some great rugby, none more so than against Clermont last week as his back-row history gives Toulon another offloader with skills. Whenever Paul O'Connell returns to fitness that combination is going to be fearsome to say the least but for the moment Romain Taofifénua and Jocelino Suta are clearly enjoying being alongside Manoa, who has made the loss of Test locks seamless. Twelve carries last Saturday with offloads to boot as mentioned, opposing teams will continue struggling to contain so many players of this ilk for a full 80 minutes.

Giteau at 10: Eric Escande and Jonathan Pélissié have impressed so far this season at scrum-half while Sébastien Tillous-Borde is still the front-runner at nine. Outside them many would opt for Quade Cooper as the director of the traffic. The jury remains out here as his susceptibility to make mistakes by overdoing will cost his team at some point. Yes it's a brilliant coup for Toulon to have Cooper in Top 14 matches but during the key stages of Europe and battling for the Bouclier de Brennus, having Matt Giteau steering the ship seems a smarter way to go. He was brilliant in all areas at Marcel Michelin last weekend and offers solidity both defensively and when the right calls needs taking in possession. Expect to see more of Giteau alongside Ma'a Nonu and Mathieu Bastareaud, as was the case against Agen.

Midfield options: Maxime Mermoz and Bastareaud formed a slick combination outside Giteau last Saturday but against Agen we saw Nonu donning the red jersey. Nonu was one of the players of 2015 for both the Hurricanes and New Zealand and if he forms a bruising yet subtle partnership with Bastareaud well, it doesn't bear thinking about the damage it could do. Another road for the champions to head down would be to move Giteau back to 12 and possibly start Nonu at 13 but in crunch Champions Cup fixtures, Giteau at 10 has to be the way to go. In the past, midfield depth has been a problem at Toulon as they have tried Rudi Wulf, Bryan Habana and others; not so this campaign as boxes are ticked by club boss Mourad Boudjellal, with Bastareaud in particular looking in impressive form of late from a carrying perspective.

That back-row: One of the main foundations their victory at Clermont was built on, Toulon's powerful trio of Mamuka Gordodze, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Duane Vermeulen were superb that Saturday. The arrival of Vermeulen cannot be downplayed and it has not taken long for him to settle into the Top 14 as he was excellent with ball in hand, taking over from Steffon Armitage at number eight. Speaking of Armitage his work in winning a key turnover – moments after coming on as a replacement – that saw Drew Mitchell run in a late try is something he has been doing for years now in France. Charles Ollivon, Juan Smith, Gerhard Vosloo and Virgile Bruni offer real depth but when the big matches come, expect a Lobbe, Armitage, Vermeulen trio to shine, with Smith and Gorgodze pushing hard. It truly is a frightening back-row.

Experience: Winning becomes a habit and at Toulon they have many players who know how to come out on top. Three European titles in succession shows they have the nous to get over the finish line even when it's not pretty and they've added to this squad this season with Nonu coming into their midfield and Vermuelen also a massive signing at number eight. Alongside so many international veterans like Giteau, Mitchell, Lobbe, Gorgodze – who all shone during the recent Rugby World Cup – watch them all stand up when it comes to crunch time in Europe. It's not just internally that all this experience benefits Toulon, opponents looking at this teamsheet surely can't help but raise an eyebrow in the changing room before kick-off. Granted many will want to knock them off their perch but against such quality, it's going to be some ask.