Preview: Champions Cup Final

Date published: May 1 2015

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An historic treble or a long-awaited first title – whatever happens on Saturday history will be made in the first Champions Cup Final.

For the second time in three seasons, Clermont take on Toulon in Europe's biggest game, with the two French heavyweights providing a contrast of philosophies both on and off the field.

Until now Toulon have been the more successful, as they gear up for a seventh straight major final, an almost unprecedented run of success that has seen them collect two Heineken Cups and a Top 14 title.

Clermont meanwhile have had to settle for the title of the best team never to win Europe's top competition. They finally won a first Top 14 title at the tenth attempt in 2010, but it's scant reward for almost a decade where they can justifiably claim to have been one of the continent's three or four best teams every season.

While the contrast in playing styles are intriguing, it's the clubs' approaches off the field which are almost moreso.

Toulon, led by their brash, outspoken president Mourad Boudjellal, often characterised as the 'Chequebook Charlies'. There is clearly some truth to that, with a team packed full of World Cup winners, Super Rugby champions and pretty much every other major title you could hope for.

What they have done so well though, is to rejuvenate careers that seemed in permanent decline. Juan Smith might be the most obvious example, having come back from injury-enforced retirement to score a try in last year's triumph over Saracens.

But there are many others. Wallaby saviour Matt Giteau was persona non grata when he left Australia, while Ali Williams looked a spent force for most of his last two seasons in New Zealand.

The Toulon side is packed with big names, but their ability to extend the careers of those stars deserves a lot of credit. The latest addition to the backroom staff was Paul Stridgeon, the highly-rated English conditioning coach who has worked with both England and the Lions.

He will have a big job on Saturday, with Toulon having struggled in the second half of games for much of 2015, but what the veterans might lack in energy late on, they will make up for in experience of pressure situations.

Of course arguably the biggest of their big game players will be watching from the sidelines this season, so Toulon will be eager to prove they can keep winning without Sir Jonny.

Clermont aren't lacking experience of their own, but their development and recruitment set-up is in stark contrast to their opponents.

Often lumped in with Toulon as a financial powerhouse, Clermont certainly aren't short of money, but their star-studded side is a product of shrewd recruitment and ability to develop players once they arrive.

A look at their starting line-up shows that only Julien Bonnaire and Jonathan Davies were tier one international regulars when they arrived, with Morgan Parra on his way.

The rest show how Clermont can take relatively unheralded individuals and turn them into key contributors.

Beyond academy products like Wesley Fofana and Noa Nakaitaci, the rest come from a variety of different backgrounds with no stars. Benjamin Kayser was second choice at Castres, Davit Zirakashvili playing in the French third division, Jamie Cudmore picked up from relegated Grenoble, even Nick Abendanon had lost his starting spot at Bath before producing a season that has made a mockery of his two measly caps.

Jean-Marc Lhermet, the former French international and Clermont skipper, is the man who has overseen all this and he is already planning for next season with the likes of Flip van der Merwe, Waisake Naholo and Scott Spedding on their way. 

So what does all that mean on the pitch?

Well, for all the talk of conservative Toulon using the power of their forward pack, they were arguably outplayed up front by Leinster. Age seems to be catching up with the likes of Bakkies Botha and Carl Hayman, as Boudjellal surprisingly pointed out this week.

Instead it might be the Toulon backs, orchestrated by Giteau, which will hold the key to a third title.

Of course, Clermont have shown just how unstoppable they can be when on form, but they weren't able to get their three-quarters going against Saracens in the same way they tore Northampton apart.

On occasion this season Toulon have looked desperately naive in defence, most notably when throwing away an 18-0 lead at home to Toulouse. However when their first choice backline is on the field, they are very hard to break down.

Whether Brock James and Camille Lopez can make the space for Fofana and co will go a long way to deciding this one.

Players to watch:

For Clermont: Once the bad boy of the Massif Central, Jamie Cudmore has mellowed with age, but he'll have to be at his best against another pair of old war horses in Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams. Sébastien Vahaamahina alongside him has bags of potential, but it will be up to Cudmore to guide him as Toulon try to get under his skin. Quite the turnaround for the former walking yellow card.

For Toulon: In 2013 Toulon won thanks to a heroic defensive effort, spearheaded by Mathieu Bastareaud. That day he racked up 17 tackles and helped Toulon weather a Clermont storm that almost blew them away after the break. He will need to be at his best once more, in his fifth straight European final, and he might have even more to play for with rumours he could be on the bubble for France's final World Cup squad. Expect him to step it up once more.

Head-to-head: There are so many tantalising match-ups but it's hard to look past the pair of Australian fly-halves who will be running the show on each side, both with plenty to prove. For Toulon Matt Giteau gets the nod over Frédéric Michalak after the latter's struggles in the rain in Marseille. Fit-again after a niggling injury, Giteau has been Toulon's best back for a couple of years now. Switching from inside centre to fly-half shouldn't pose a problem, but he hasn't played there much so far this campaign. And beyond the incentive of a third European title, Giteau also has the chance to lay down a marker to Michael Cheika and the Wallaby selectors after the recent changes to Australia's selection policy, and what is being called the 'Giteau Clause'.

If Giteau is hoping for a quick return to Twickenham, Brock James' international hopes disappeared a long time ago. The veteran fly-half has everything to prove though after getting the nod over Camille Lopez. Arguably the best player in both of Clermont's knock-out games this season, he has plenty of personal demons to bury in this competition. A nightmare in Dublin when he missed seven kicks in a one-point loss to Leinster is probably topped by the final two years ago in the same city when his decision to pass rather than kick ended up leading to Delon Armitage's winning try, complete with notorious wave. James can lead Clermont to victory, but no-one better typifies their underachieving recent past.

Previous results: 

2014: Toulon won 27-19 in Nice
2014: Clermont won 22-16 in Clermont
2013: Toulon won 25-19 in Nice
2013: Toulon won 16-15 in Dublin
2013: The sides drew 26-26 in Marseille
2012: Clermont won 24-21 in Clermont
2012: Toulon won 15-12 in Toulouse
2012: Clermont won 25-19 in Clermont

Prediction: The heart probably favours Clermont after so many near-misses but Toulon's chase of an historic treble is a compelling narrative. At their best Clermont should have just too much, but on the big stage it's hard to see past the defending champions. Toulon by 3!

The teams:

Clermont: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Napolioni Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Damien Chouly (c), 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Vincent Debaty.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Thomas Domingo, 18 Clément Ric, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Julien Bardy, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 22 Camille Lopez, 23 Aurélien Rougerie.

Toulon: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Juan Martin Hernandez, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman (c), 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Xavier Chiocci.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Alexandre Menini, 18 Levan Chilachava, 19 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 20 Virgile Bruni, 21 Rudi Wulf, 22 Frédéric Michalak, 23 Romain Taofifenua. 

Date: Saturday, 2 May
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 17:00 local
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England), George Clancy (Ireland)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

By Paul Eddison

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