Planet Rugby

Preview: Toulouse v Toulon

23rd May 2013 12:54

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Louis Picamoles Toulouse v Toulon T14

Toulouse battering ram: Louis Picamoles

Newly-crowned European champions Toulon face defending French champions Toulouse in the first Top 14 semi-final at Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes on Friday in a rematch of last year's final.

For the second time in as many weekends, Toulon's armada of stars must travel to a neutral venue as they continue their quest for a historic Heineken Cup-Top 14 double after their narrow win over Clermont at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday.

Both teams have taken special measures in their preparations, with Toulon staying in Dublin this week to avoid the fan frenzy back home while Toulouse have decamped to Nantes, where they've been training behind closed doors since Monday.

While Toulon are trying to avoid basking in the glory of their long-awaited return to the big time - last weekend saw them grab hold of silverware for the first time in 21 years, Toulouse are under pressure to silence their critics who are suggesting the end of an era has dawned on Guy Novès' squad.

Of course les Toulousains will take it all with a pinch of salt as they chase a third consecutive title, having edged RCT in last year's final in Paris when ex-All Black Luke McAlister kicked six penalties to Jonny Wilkinson's four.

The Toulouse scrum was the cornerstone of that victory but, in typical fashion, Toulon president and owner Mourad Boudjellal immediately went out and bought a few reinforcements, including two of the best props in the world, Andrew Sheridan and Gethin Jenkins, while Carl Hayman will be present this time after missing out last year.

Indeed, times have changed. Toulouse finished 14 points ahead of Bernard Laporte's team in last season's standings only to see the roles reversed this time as the champs ended third, 11 points behind second-placed Toulon.

That will all count for very little on Friday though as big-match temperament will be the key ingredient. This is Toulouse's 20th consecutive French semi-final. They've won 11 of the previous 19, going on to claim the championship title nine times in that period.

Toulon's players will take to the park wearing jerseys embroidered with a star signifying their European success, but thoughts of a double are - apparently - far from their minds.

"From Monday we'll have to switch over and think of the semi-final," European Cup man-of-the-match Mathieu Bastareaud said after the final.

"We're professionals. We've gone halfway, we know we cane still achieve something historic. We have the means to do it.

"But Toulouse will be awaiting us with teeth bared."

Toulouse's France back Yoann Huget said there was no need for his team to ask themselves "10,000 questions".

"We'll have to be physically ready to deal with the kitchen sink Toulon are going to throw at us," he said.

Toulouse have named exactly the same team that impressively beat Racing Metro in the play-offs, meaning veteran centre Yannick Jauzion starts with Yann David the only three-quarter on the bench.

The only changes to the Toulon squad that won the Heineken Cup Final are at scrum-half, where Frédéric Michalak swaps with Sébastien Tillous-Borde, who drops to the bench, and amongst the replacements where Rocky Elsom comes in for Joe van Niekerk.

Players to watch:

For Toulon: Once one of Toulouse's favourite sons, Frédéric Michalak faces off with many of his close friends. Michalak became only the fifth player to win the Heineken Cup with two clubs after coming off the bench in the second half in Dublin. He had previously won the title with Toulouse in 2003 and 2005.

For Toulouse: After 'retiring' to become the Toulouse forwards coach at the end of last season, William Servat has been a regular starter in the front row of late - and he's been as powerful as ever. And he'll need to be at his best against a quality Toulon pack.

Head-to-head: The highlight of the game could well be the tussle between probably the two best number eights in Europe at the moment: Louis Picamoles and Chris Masoe like to hit hard, especially when they're carrying the ball. A few defenders are set to get hurt!

Previous results:
29/09/2012: Toulouse won 32 - 9 in Toulouse
02/03/2013: Toulon won 35 - 16 in Toulon

Prediction: Only the very brave would dare to wager on this one. Toulon made an awful lot of tackles last weekend and could be suffering from a bit of hang-over. Boudjellal's "I don't care about the Top 14 anymore" quote makes us think Toulouse might edge it. Toulouse by less than five points

The teams:

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 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Davit Kubriashvili, 19 Rocky Elsom, 20 Steffon Armitage, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 Sébastien Tillous-Borde , 23 Jocelino Suta.

Stade Toulousain:15 Clement Poitrenaud, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Yannick Jauzion, 12 Gael Fickou, 11 Maxime Medard, 10 Luke McAlister, 9 Jean Marc Doussain, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Thierry Dusautoir, 6 Jean Bouilhou, 5 Patricio Albacete, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Census Johnston, 2 William Servat, 1 Vasil Kakovin.
Replacements: 16 Jaba Bregvadze, 17 Gurthro Steenkamp, 18 Romain Millo Chlusky, 19 Yannick Nyanga, 20 Luke Burgess, 21 Lionel Beauxis, 22 Yann David, 23 Jean Batiste Poux.

Date: Friday, May 24
Venue: Stade de la Beaujoire, Nantes
Kick-off: 21.00 (19.00 GMT)
Weather: 12°C Chances of rain
Referee: Pascal Gauzere
Assistant referees: Romain Poite and Sébastien Clouté

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