Toulon stand on the verge of an historic Euro-French double as they face Castres in the Top 14 Final at the Stade de France on Saturday.
Toulon stand on the verge of an historic European-French double as they face Castres in the Top 14 Final at the Stade de France on Saturday.
League leaders for a large part of the French season and clinical winners over Clermont in the Heineken Cup Final a fortnight ago, this season has finally seen owner Mourad Boudjellal's mammoth investment in the club pay off.
In the past, European success has been known to blunt the ambition of sides facing domestic finals but Toulon coach Bernard Laporte insists their first silverware in 21 years has done nothing to reduce his players' determination to add a second trophy to their haul this term.
Indeed, Toulon are the overwhelming favourites as they aim to become the first French team since Toulouse in the inaugural European Cup season to complete the double.
Yet former France coach Laporte insists his side won't be taking Castres lightly as their shock win over Clermont last week bears testament to their capacity to create an upset.
“I see the group evolving as it's always evolved, with a lot of humility, a lot of seriousness and a lot of camaraderie,” said Laporte.
“And that's not a word that's just bandied about, these guys are buddies.
“It's obvious, I've never felt otherwise, apart from once or twice, such as at Bordeaux (when Toulon were thrashed 41-0 by the minnows in February).
“The rest of the time, when they had to win games, I've always felt this desire to give everything for each other. There are no morons in this team.”
However, despite his insistence that Toulon will be have complete concentration in Paris, Laporte could not deny that the southern club have already attained their major objective for the season – a first ever European title.
Asked if it was more important to win the Top 14 title for the first time since 1992, Laporte found the idea laughable.
“It would be ridiculous to say that. There is an order of things. When you are European champions, you are champions of … Europe!” he said.
“But then, culturally… When I was born there was only the Bouclier de Brennus but I'm not convinced that for the foreigners who come here that they've got that culture.”
While foreign players may dream more of European glory than domestic success, for Castres, winning any trophy would be an achievement in itself.
Although they succeeded Toulon as French champions in 1993, thus matching their rivals' achievement of three French crowns, they do not have the same financial backing as Toulon.
So much so that coaching team of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers have been tempted away by big-spending Parisians Racing Metro for next season.
Yet Labit says that Castres can upset the applecart in their last match in charge.
“I don't think they (Toulon) have any weak points but, as we often say, anything can happen in a one-off match,” said Labit.
“We have to replicate the match we produced last week (against Clermont) in the strategy we want to adopt, in our commitment, in our spirit, and hope that Toulon play a little less well given it will be a third top level match in a row without changing around their team much.”
Since their shock 25-9 success against Clermont, Labit and Travers have been working on ensuring their players don't rest on their laurels thinking they've already over-achieved.
“We were attentive to that to make sure our season didn't end last weekend. It's wonderful to beat Clermont but we didn't want our players to start celebrating,” said Labit.
Castres' improvement under their coaching duo has been incremental, reaching the quarter-finals two and three years ago, graduating to the semi-finals last season and now reaching the showcase finale in the current campaign.
Toulon were in the final a year ago where they came up short against Toulouse who Laporte's men outclassed in the semi-finals this time around.
Toulon have made just one change to the starting XV that beat Toulouse. Carl Hayman returns from injury to start, moving Davit Kubriashvili to the bench where he is joined by Joe van Niekerk, who comes in for Rocky Elsom.
The Castres matchday 23 is unchanged.
Players to watch:
For Toulon: Once the enfant terrible of French rugby, Mathieu Bastareaud has found his way again since coming back under the guidance of Laporte and is in the form of his life. It would be hard to name a more destructive 13 in world rugby – Basta is a pure bulldozer. Running straight and hard is what he does best and Castres will need to commit an handful of defenders to bring him down whenever the ball reaches his channel.
For Castres: Last week's convincing win over Clermont came largely thanks to the Castres front row, who were dominant at scrum time. This weekend they face another world class front row but the likes of French international Yannick Forestier will be keen to claim a few more big scalps.
Head-to-head: Samoan lock Joe Tekori will play his last game for Castres before joining Toulouse. His big hits, powerful carries, and thundering ruck clean outs have become a feature of the CO side in recent years. He has publicly proclaimed that he is “not afraid” of Bakkies Botha, who has set the world benchmark for playing the 'enforcer' role. Tekori is a far more athletic player while Botha gets the job done in the trenches, but both teams will look to their second rows to provide momentum.
22/09/2012: Toulon won 33 – 12 in Toulon
22/02/2013: Castres won 25 – 20 in Castres
Prediction: Castres were very good last week but we can't see Toulon taking their eyes off the prize. Toulon by ten points
Rugby Club Toulonnais: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Rudi Wulf, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Jonny Wilkinson (c), 9 Frederic Michalak, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Danie Rossouw, 5 Nick Kennedy, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman , 2 Sebastien Bruno, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Xavier Chiocci, 18 Jocelino Suta 19 Joe van niekerk, 20 Steffon Armitage, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 SÃ©bastien Tillous-Borde , 23 Davit Kubriashvili.
Castres Olympique: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Romain Martial, 13 Romain Cabannes, 12 Seremaia BaÃ¯, 11 Marc Andreu, 10 Remi TalÃ¨s, 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Antonie Claassen, 7 Yannick Caballero, 6 Ibrahim Diarra, 5 Rodrigo Capo Ortega, 4 Christophe Samson, 3 Karena Wihongi, 2 Brice Mach, 1 Saimone Taumoepeau.
Replacements: 16 Mathieu Bonello, 17 Yannick Forestier, 18 Joe Tekori, 19 Janie Bornman, 20 Romain Teulet, 21 Daniel Kirkpatrick, 22 Paul Bonnefond, 23 MihaÃ¯ta Lazar.
Date: Saturday, June 1
Venue: Stade de France, St. Denis (Paris)
Kick-off: 21.00 (19.00 GMT)
Weather: 18Â°C. Partly Cloudy, chances of rain
Referee: JÃ©rÃ´me GarcÃ¨s