ACC preview: Toulon v Biarritz

17th May 2012, 15:29

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At the Stoop: Jonny Wilkinson

At the Stoop: Jonny Wilkinson

Friday's Amlin Challenge Cup Final between Biarritz and Toulon at Twickenham Stoop will culminate in a first European title for the victor.

Friday's all-French Amlin Challenge Cup Final between Biarritz and Toulon at Twickenham Stoop will culminate in a first European title for the winner.

Indeed Europe's second tier competition has not been kind to the French, as the cup will go across the Channel for only the second time in 12 years.

Neither Biarritz nor Toulon are strangers to European knockout rugby, with the Basques having contested the Heineken Cup Finals of 2006 and 2010 while RCT lost to Cardiff in the 2010 Challenge Cup Final at Stade Velodrome.

It's been a season of contrasting fortunes for Friday's protagonists with Biarritz only securing their survival in the Top 14 in the second last of the French championship. Toulon, however, have been flying high and will host a Top 14 play-off after finishing third in the standings.

Biarritz have the double incentive of winning silverware and gaining automatic qualification for next season's Heineken Cup. Serge Blanco's club have been sitting at the top table for the last 12 seasons and failure to secure Heineken Cup rugby will represent a blow to one of France's biggest clubs.

After a wretched start to the season, Biarritz have won eight of their last ten games in all competitions and have been growing in confidence.

Toulon are in the final on the back of a runaway 37-8 quarter-final victory over defending champions Harlequins and a thrilling 32-29 semi-final win against last season's finalists Stade Français. They also recently beat Europe's most decorated club, Toulouse, in a tough battle at Stade Felix Mayol.

RCT were not convincing in the first-half of last week's win over relegated Lyon, however, and needed a stern talking to from boss Bernard Laporte at half-time to kick into gear.

Biarritz welcome back French international lock Jerome Thion in a starting XV that shows four changes from the team that beat Stade Français in the Top 14 last weekend. Thion takes over from Erik Lund, who is amongst the replacements.

Iain Balshaw returns at full-back with Marcelo Bosch dropping to the bench. Dane Haylett-Petty is also back and starts on the left wing ahead of Ilikena Bolakoro after filling in at centre in the quarter-final win over Brive.

In the front-row, Yvan Watremez is preferred to France's most-capped prop, Sylvain Marconnet, who will start the last game of his career on the bench. The 36-year-old prop, who made his European debut back in 1997, will be playing his 88th European match.

There is no place for French internationals Raphael Lakafia or Fabien Barcella while Benoit Baby has been ruled out by injury.

Meanwhile, Toulon are boosted by the return of Mathieu Bastareaud with the centre having missed the last four weeks of action with a fractured hand.

He returns and partners former Wallaby fly-half Matt Giteau in midfield while Jonny Wilkinson will direct from number ten.

Up front Toulon field former Saracen Kris Chesney, ex-London Irish flanker Steffon Armitage and - in his last game for the French club before he re-joins Sale - Eifion Lewis-Roberts. Dean Schofield, another former Sale stalwart, will start on the replacements bench along with former Bristol star Joe El-Abd.

Players to watch:

For Toulon: The consummate professional, Jonny Wilkinson is central to the Toulon gameplan and RCT will happily watch Sir Jonny - as they like to call him - kick them to victory. But the English fly-half has been a touch off-song in recent weeks. The result could depend on whether of not the World Cup-winner brings his 'A' game. Also keep an eye on flanker Steffon Armitage, who was recently voted the Top 14 Player of the Year by a prominent French newspaper.

For Biarritz: There are two types of Biarritz teams: Those with Dimitri Yachvili, and those without. When French international scrum-half plays, the Basques are capable of beating just about anyone. Without him, they are often a lost cause. If the veteran playmaker is at his best - and he seldom isn't - he will be a sure bet to add to his 659 points in 67 European appearances. Another French veteran, Damien Traille, has been in try-scoring form of late.

Head-to-head: Iconic figures at their respective clubs Imanol Harinordoquy and Joe van Niekerk are set for a titanic battle as both sides will be seeking to dominate up front in order to let their kicking maestros do the work behind them. Both number eights love to carry the ball - expect some massive collisions.

Rugby Union betting odds

The teams:

Toulon: 15 Benjamin Lapeyre, 14 Alexis Palisson, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 David Smith, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Joe van Niekerk, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Pierrick Gunther, 5 Kris Chesney, 4 Christophe Samson, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Sebastien Bruno, 1 Eifion Lewis-Roberts.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Laurent Emmanuelli, 18 Davit Kubriashvili, 19 Joe El Abd, 20 Geoffroy Messina, 21 Dean Schofield, 22 Fabien Cibray, 23 Jocelino Suta.

Biarritz Olympique: 15 Iain Balshaw, 14 Taku Ngwenya, 13 Jean Pascal Barraque, 12 Damien Traille, 11 Dane Haylett-Petty, 10 Julien Peyrelongue, 9 Dimitri Yachvili, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Benoit Guyot, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Pelu Taele, 4 Jerome Thion, 3 Eugene van Staden, 2 Arnaud Heguy, 1 Yvan Watremez.
Replacements: 16 Benoit August, 17 Sylvain Marconnet, 18 Francisco Gomez Kodela, 19 Erik Lund, 20 Talalelei Gray, 21 Charles Gimenez, 22 Marcelo Bosch, 23 Ilikena Bolakoro.

Date: Friday, May 18
Venue: Twickenham Stoop
Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Referee: Wayne Barnes