Toulouse face Toulon in Paris on Saturday in what many will see as a clash between the past and the new face of French rugby.
Eighteen-time champions Toulouse face Toulon at the Stade de France on Saturday in what many will see as a clash between the past and the new face of French rugby.
Boasting a team flush with foreign stars, built on largely of the investment of a single man, it's not surprising that for many outsiders Toulon have become the symbol of an uncomfortable trend in modern rugby – where money rules all.
But it would be wrong it consider Toulon as a team without history or deep roots. The Rugby Club Toulonnais has been around since 1908 and have been champions of France on three occasions, with their last title coming in 1992.
Of course, RCT's meteoric rise from the depths of the second division back into the top flight came at a hefty cost and owner Mourad Boudjellal has forked out a small truckload of cash to revive the fortunes of one of France's most well-supported teams.
But would not be entirely correct to assume that Toulon have simply bought their success. Lest we forget the RCT's budget falls 4,4 million Euros short of beaten semi-finalists Clermont and is nearly 50 per cent smaller than that of Toulouse.
Indeed, there is a lot of passionate support behind Saturday's underdogs. Such is the desire to be part of the big occasion that 7,000 tickets were sold in just three hours in Toulon when sales opened on Monday and five TGV trains have been booked to ferry the RCT fans from the Var to the capital. For those not lucky enough to make it to Paris, Stade Mayol has been sold out to fans wanting to watch the game on big screens!
And while the 'mercenary' tag might have been appropriate for some imports in the past, that passion is now apparent in the attitudes of stalwarts like Joe van Niekerk and Jonny Wilkinson, who are now truly at home sur la Rade.
This will be the third time these teams have met in the Final. Stade Toulousain manager Guy NovÃ¨s was involved in both the previous games, as a player in 1985 when Toulouse won 36-22 after extra time and as coach in 1989 when his team won 18-12.
As much as Toulon are a symbol of the new age of player recruitment, NovÃ¨s has become the icon of Toulouse's dominance of French rugby, having delivered nine French titles and four European Cups since taking over as head coach in 1988.
While Toulon were very lucky to get past Clermont last week, no one can deny that Toulouse – having led the 26-round championship since Round Ten – deserve to be in the final, even if they had to dig deep to edge out Castres in the semis.
After two anti-climatic semi-finals fans will be hoping for a more entertaining showdown in the capital, but they shouldn't expect Toulon to fling the ball around.
It's no coincidence that Toulon were involved in another try-less knock-out game this season, the Amlin Challenge Cup final against Biarritz, which was a total bore-fest. But when you have a goal-kicker like Wilkinson, do you really need to score tries?
The answer is yes.
Even if Toulouse have been somewhat off-colour over the last month or two, they can be counted upon to produce the goods at the Stade de France, which has become like their second home.
Just how much the protagonists will be allowed to play open rugby will depend of referee Romain Poite, who twice this season has come under fire from Toulon boss Bernard Laporte. The ex-France coach earned a touchline ban for publicly insulting France's top referee. Perhaps not the smartest move the former French Secretary of Sport has ever made.
Toulouse were in a different clash the first time these teams met this season, back in December. The defending champions scored three unanswered tries as RCT struggled to cope with the Toulousains free-running style.
Toulon bounced back when they met again in March, however, producing their best performance of the season to win by three points at home to a Toulouse side that had nothing to play for.
Those results suggest that Toulouse will be a favourites on Saturday but the manner in which Wilko, Big Joe, Bakkies Botha and co. ground out victory in their semi-final has NovÃ¨s taking an even more cautious approach than usual.
Finals are won on guts. And it appears the team spirit in the Toulon camp has become a significant factor in the equation.
“I am not surprised by that result. We also could have lost (on Saturday), I knew that the two semi-finals would be tight,” said the 58-year-old Toulouse boss.
“We will be preparing much differently for the final against Toulon than we would have done for Clermont.
“We will have to adapt our strategy. We are expecting a complicated match. For me there is no favourite,” added NovÃ¨s.
Neutrals would have been praying for a Toulouse-Clermont final. Their title showdown in 2008 was one of the most exciting games ever played, anywhere.
It's unlikely we'll see a repeat of the thrills in that epic clash but fans can rest assured there'll be no lack of passion, blood, guts and tears in what will be an historic occasion… irrespective of the result.
Players to watch:
For Toulouse: Former All Black Luke McAllister has mixed the sublime with the mediocre in his time at Toulouse but was outstanding in the semi-final win over Castres. The author of a faultless kicking display, including four penalties from over 45 metres, the Kiwi playmaker will need to be on top of his game to match Mr. Wilkinson. Up front, William Servat will play his last game before taking over as Toulouse's forwards coach. A tireless servant of les Rouge et Noirs over the years, Servat's influence cannot be underestimated.
For Toulon: You can't put a price on experience and Bakkies Botha has seen his fair share of big match days. The World Cup, Tri-Nations, Super 14 and Currie Cup winner has always insisted that he came to France to win silverware, not to retire. The former Bok has not made many headlines since his arrival but his best work is done in the unglamorous trenches. If Toulon, as expected, look to slug this one out, then his efforts alongside fellow veteran Simon Shaw will be crucial. They'll apply the pressure and then hope Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau do the business from the kicking tee.
Head to head: The Top 14's player of the season, English flank Steffon Armitage and his skipper Joe van Niekerk are set for an almighty battle with Toulouse captain Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles. Dusautoir will be playing his last game before a well-deserved holiday and his tussle with the fresh-faced Armitage, who has been a revelation on the Mediterranean coast is set to be one of the highlights of the season.
Previous results this season:
December: Toulouse won 33-12 at Stadium de Toulouse
May: Toulon won 25-22 at Stade Felix Mayol
Prediction: It'll be close. Toulouse have not been