Planet Rugby

Preview: Clermont v Toulon

17th May 2013 09:43


Sivi v Wilko Clermont v Toulon preview box

World class: Sivi and Wilko

A new name will be engraved on the Heineken Cup trophy on Saturday as Europe's most outstanding clubs face off at Lansdowne Road.

This is the fourth all-French H-Cup Final but the winners in Dublin will become just the third French club to claim European club rugby's top prize. It will however be France's sixth title, equalling Ireland and England.

Clermont, who are aiming to become the first team to secure the silverware by winning every game along the way, are the marginal favourites to join France's only previous champions Brive and Toulouse on the honours roll, but any bet against Toulon's armada of stars would certainly be a brave one.

Few would deny that the two best teams in the competition have made the final. Clermont have averaged over 33 points in their eight matches this term while Toulon are around the 29 point mark. The most tries, the most metres carried, the best goal-kickers, the most defenders beaten, the most offloads... this duo top the stats in almost every attacking department, so we should expect an exciting game, even if a certain English fly-half is the central figure in the Toulon artillery.

Is this the new face of rugby? The depth of the opposing squads boggles the mind. Toulouse boss Guy Novès, no stranger to deep pockets himself, has labelled the game as a clash between the "Real Madrid and Barcelona of rugby".

Take a moment to consider that Fijian wing Noa Nakaitaci, who was recently named in France's June Test squad, struggles to make Clermont's first-choice matchday 22. With skipper Aurélien Rougerie doubtful, les Jaunards have a choice between two former All Blacks to take his spot at 13. Gethin Jenkins is a candidate to start for the British and Irish Lions, but he will be leaving Toulon at the end of the season because he has spent most of his time there on the bench, usually joined on the woodwork by the likes of 52-cap Springbok Joe van Niekerk and World Cup finalist Maxime Mermoz, the list goes on and on. In fact, there is a very real chance we'll see 30 full internationals on the pitch at kick-off - it's an unprecedented array of firepower.

Whether the arms race in France is good for the game in general is a debate for another day, but it has provided us with a mouthwatering fixture, of that there is no doubt.

That said - and far be it for us to say anything disparaging about the Irish capital - it is a shame this game will be played in Dublin, where the vast majority of les Ultras Vulcans, les Fadas et al will be absent. Cédric Abellon, Toulon's hurleur will be at Merrion Square on the afternoon of the game to belt out the Pilou-Pilou but the noise coming from two of the most colourful sets of supporters in Europe will be significantly diminished by the need to travel the better part of 1500km.

Both teams have dug into their pockets to help fans make the trip, and there will be around 6,000 members of the yellow army flown in on 20 planes from Clermont. Both clubs have also set up big screens at their stadiums. Such is the fervour in Toulon that Thursday's open training session was held in front of a packed main grandstand.

The weather doesn't look like it's going to play ball, but if there is one team you can always count on to produce du jeu, regardless of the conditions, it's Clermont.

Indeed, Vern Cotter's side are probably a better-balanced team and if the ASM backs hit their straps, no one can live with them. So don't be surprised if Toulon look to keep it a bit tighter, because we all know what the man in the red number ten shirt is capable of in the last ten minutes.

It might all come down to discipline and once again the stats suggest a tight contest. Toulon have conceded an average of 10 penalties this year compared to 11 for Clermont. Both teams have remarkably accurate sharpshooters - Morgan Parra is the tournament's top goal-kicker with 108 points, 11 more than Wilkinson.

Big games like this require big temperaments and after years of knocking on the door, Clermont finally seem ready to fulfil their potential. Toulon have taken an expensive shortcut to the top but they have a lot of experienced heads, who have seen it all before.

Clermont won 24-21 in the first Top 14 meeting this season, but the pair shared the spoils in a 26-26 stalemate in Marseille last month.

Toulon have named the same matchday 22 that beat Saracens in the semi-finals with Danie Rossouw passed fit to start in the back-row and Frederic Michalak on the bench.

Clermont give Gerhard Vosloo a start ahead of Julien Bardy at openside flanker, whilst Aurélien Rougerie will start at outside centre despite doubts over his fitness earlier in the week.

Players to watch:

For Clermont: Clermont's backline has been amazing all season. Napolioni Nalaga is the tournament's top try-scorer with seven touchdowns. He also leads the stats for metres gained with ball in hand (667 from 94 carries). the most defenders beaten, 26, three more than Wesley Fofana, who is a nominee for European Player of the Year. Aurélien Rougerie has made the most offloads (19) this season, just ahead of Sitiveni Sivivatu, who is showing the kind of form that once made him an All Black stalwart.

For Toulon: Number eight Chris Masoe has made the second most carries in competition, with full-back Delon Armitage next on the list. Victory for Toulon would see hooker Sebastien Bruno break Brad Thorn's record for being the oldest Heineken Cup Final winner. At 38 years and 8 months, he's no spring chicken, and some might even suggest he is the weak link in the Toulon pack.

Head-to-head: With soggy conditions expected, the battle of the all-international front-rows could be pivotal. Likewise, the tussle between two veteran locks, Nathan Hines and Bakkies Botha is set to be spectacular. Hines already has a Heineken Cup winner's medal while Botha has World Cup, Tri-Nations and Super Rugby honours to his name - neither will be overawed by the occasion. But we're most looking forward to the tussle at twelve between two of the most outstanding attacking talents in the world, Matt Giteau and Wesley Fofana.

Previous results:
10/11/2012: Clermont 24 - 21 Toulon (Top 14) in Clermont-Ferrand
14/04/2013: Toulon 26 - 26 Clermont (Top 14) in Marseille

Prediction: It's incredibly hard to make a call but we feel Clermont have an extra card or two to play. Clermont by five points!

The teams:

Clermont: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Aurélien Rougerie (c), 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Naipolioni Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Gerhard Vosloo, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements:16 Ti'i Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Clement Ric, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Julien Bardy, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 22 David Skrela, 23 Regan King.

Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Rudi Wulf, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Jonny Wilkinson (c), 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 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 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Davit Kubriashvili, 19 Joe van Niekerk, 20 Steffon Armitage, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 Frederic Michalak, 23 Jocelino Suta.

Date: Saturday, May 18
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 17.00 local (16.00 GMT/ 18.00 CEST)
Weather: 12 degrees. Rain
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Wayne Barnes (England); George Clancy (Ireland)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (Ireland)

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