Preview: Top 14 Final

Date published: May 31 2014

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Irrespective of who wins Saturday's Final between Toulon and Castres there will be a 'double' to celebrate at the Stade de France.

Irrespective of who wins Saturday's Top 14 Final between Rugby Club Toulonnais and Castres Olympique, there will be a 'double' to celebrate at the Stade de France.

While Toulon seek to become the first team since Toulouse in 1996 to win French and Europe titles in the same season – and their first Bouclier de Brennus since 1992 – Castres are out to claim back-to-back championships in a rematch of last year's final.

They may both be seeking historic milestones, but these clubs have taken very different routes to get to Paris.

Although Castres embody many of the traditional values that make French rugby unique, it would be hard to suggest that they deserve to defend their Top 14 title.

That may sound harsh but the truth be told, from a pure sporting perspective, CO's place in the final is difficult to defend. Having finished sixth in the standings at the end of the regular season, les Tarnais have snuck into the season showpiece via a play-off system that is designed more to fill the coffers of the French league than it is to reward the success over the course of the season.

Ironically it was Toulon that helped Castres get this far. CO came close to missing out on the play-offs altogether as they lost their final match of the season at relegation-threatened Bayonne. Stade Français looked set to deny them sixth spot as they led 10-3 at half-time against Toulon in Nice, but a second-half turnaround from the table-toppers to snatch a narrow win gave Castres a stay of execution.

Although the play-off round is little more that an excuse to add an extra, lucrative weekend to an already long season, credit must be given to Castres for grabbing the opportunity with both hands and doing what was thought impossible by conquering fortress Clermont.

Their reward was a semi-final at a neutral venue (why bother finishing near the top of the table?) against Montpellier, where their no-frills approach and deadly kickers did the business, once again.

Indeed, the Castres methodology is made for knock-out rugby – as Toulon found out, the hard way, in last year's final. Their fighting spirit and fresh legs after a week off mean they have every chance of upsetting the odds once again. Last year they became the first team in the Top 14 era to win the title having finished outside the top three. If they were to win it this time, they would beat their own record of the lowest regular season finisher.

With a population of around just 43 000, Castres is the typical rugby-mad town in France's south-west. With a budget less than half the size of Toulon's, the club has been bank rolled by pharmaceutical giant Pierre Fabre – who passed away last July – since 1987. By contrast, Mourad Boudjellal no longer spends his personal fortune on RCT (or so he claims), having built a small army of financial backers – including the town of Toulon itself – and an infrastructure across the Var region that ensures the Toulon faithful have plenty of places to spend their money on tickets, jerseys etc. to keep the influx of stars coming to the Mediterranean coast.

While the Castres squad – led by a young and relatively inexperienced coaching trio – have a sprinkling of internationals, their line-up pales in star quality compared to Toulon team of Galacticos, their staff of multi-titled coaches, their mobile cryotherapy unit and double-starred jersey. It's a classic case of David v Goliath.

This time last year RCT looked sure to add the French crown to their maiden Heineken Cup title won a week earlier but, in typical fashion, Castres suffocated the Bernard Laporte's foreign legion to the extent that the game was over long before Delon Armitage's late try gave some respectability to the scoreline.

The European champions have vowed there will be no failure this time as they face their third Top 14 Final in as many years. “The job's not done, Rory Kockott, he's already in bed,” said Bakkies Botha moments after the HEC Final in Cardiff.

In case you've been living in a hut in the mountains for the past fortnight, a quick reminder that this will be Jonny Wilkinson's last match before his well-deserved retirement. The significance of the occasion has certainly not been lost on the club and if the attraction of more silverware isn't enough to lift the Toulon players for one more big performance, then giving their iconic leader a winning send off in his swansong certainly should be.

Toulon have made just one change to the starting XV that beat Saracens last week as Ali Williams comes into the second row ahead of Danie Rossouw, who drops to the bench. There is still no place in the matchday 23 for Fred Michalak.

There is just one chnage to the Castres XV that beat Montpellier in the semi-finals as looesehead prop Saimone Taumoepeau starts ahead of Yannick Forestier, who drops to the bench.

Players to watch:

For Toulon: What more can be said of Jonny Wilkinson after a glittering 17-year career?Wilko's last hurrah has overshadowed the game itself in the build-up and even his opposite number this weekend, France fly-half Rémi Talès, has been singing his praises. “What makes him stand out is his game management. He gives his team a lift by finding the diagonals whenever there's an open space,” said Tales. “He can do everything and he also has drop goals in his armoury. When you're defending and he penalises you with three points, that hurts.”I'm lucky to be playing against him in his last match, it's a great honour.” It's a massive occasion, but count on Wilko to take it all in his stride.

For Castres: Scrum-half Rory Kockott was the hero of last year's final when his game management and accurate kicking meant the Toulon pack where never able to seize control of the contest. He also scored the match-winning try. If there is one man Toulon must shut down, it's the South African.

Head-to-head: Toulon back-rower Steffon Armitage was named European Player of the Year on Monday. Enough said. His opposite number Antonie Claassen is crucial to the Castres cause as his ball carrying is a key source of momentum. The Castres back row face a massive task at the breakdown but if they can repeat their performance in Clermont, they'll be in with a shout.

Previous results:
Round 19: Toulon won 19-13
Round 6: Castres won 22-15
2013 Final: Castres won 19-14

Prediction: Castres have become specialist giant-slayers but surely Toulon will not make the mistakes of a year ago. If their clinical display against Saracens is anything to go by, their pack is switched on like never before and should dominate. Toulon by ten points.

The teams:

Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Jonny

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