Toulon make European history

Date published: May 2 2015

Toulon made European history with a rollercoaster 24-18 triumph over Clermont at Twickenham for their third-straight title.

Brilliant individual tries from first Nick Abendanon and then Drew Mitchell made this one of the great European finals. But once again it was Toulon's day.

No other club side except for the Crusaders of 1998 to 2000 have ever achieved this much success at this level. One European title already felt like an excellent return on Mourad Boudjellal's level of investment. Now they have three.

Bernard Laporte spoke about Jonny Wilkinson being the inspiration for Toulon but winning this title without him will actually benefit the club in the long-term, whatever the future holds with Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams and their captain Carl Hayman bowing out.

Until someone equals their incredible feat of three straight European titles, they will be remembered as arguably the greatest European side of all time. It's inscribed in the silverware after all.

Clermont two years ago were overall the better side in Dublin, yet fell short of the trophy as they have so often in their history with ten runners-up finishes in the Top 14.

It took Clermont three losses in a Top 14 Final before they eventually cracked the nut in 2010, going through agony before the triumph. Saturday was nothing new, but it won't have hurt any less, especially after Abendanon's brilliant try.

With collisions worthy of a Mayweather-Pacquiao undercard and a high skill level that you'd expect with two XVs full of internationals, the first Champions Cup Final did not disappoint.

Neither side lacked experience by any measure and yet the nerves were there in abundance in the opening stanza.

Clermont's willingness to play wide almost brought instant reward when Napolioni Nalaga was put away by Abendanon, but unlike in 2013 when he finished in the corner, this time Bryan Habana had his number.

Losing Brock James shortly before kickoff was a nightmare but his replacement Camille Lopez tried to stamp his authority on the game with a snap drop goal near to the posts.

Hayman's chargedown in fact placed his side further on the back foot and the tighthead was then penalised at the scrum to allow Lopez his first points with a penalty.

Clermont's ambition wasn't in doubt but when they kicked they do so accurately and with purpose, winning a second kickable penalty for Lopez when Leigh Halfpenny was isolated clearing up at the back for his side.

Toulon desperately needed territory and on a rare foray into Clermont's 22 they were rewarded when Halfpenny struck with a penalty.

The way Wesley Fofana carried the ball in two hands and hit lines against the angle continually made Toulon hesitate, so it was fitting that the France centre grabbed the first try to the delight of his travelling fans.

Fofana had too much speed after scooping up a blocked kick and sprinting down the touchline to make it 11-3.

Toulon's scrum more than recovered from that early penalty near their own line by winning one of their own deep in Clermont territory, with Halfpenny converting to cut the gap.

The Wales full-back's move to Toulon hinged on him giving the Top 14 champions a kicker of the highest quality and his up and under set Toulon up for another penalty. He rarely misses.

That accuracy goes well with Toulon's ability to strangle penalties out of their opponents, Kayser again the culprit, but this time Halfpenny couldn't find the posts.

Mathieu Bastareaud however made sure his team led at the break, crashing over as only he can out wide after Toulon opened things up with the ball in hand after Abendanon's careless kick to take a 16-11 advantage into half-time.

From trailing throughout the first half Toulon suddenly held all the cards. Another try, perhaps, and Clermont would have too much to do.

Steffon Armitage certainly felt that way when he bumped back Abendanon with a thundering carry, but Giteau's final pass with numbers on his outside was uncharacteristically poor.

Toulon though held a firm grip on Clermont's lineout with the steals racking up as the errors racked up. Noa Nakaitaci's mistake was as much mental as physical, throwing the ball away after he mishandled a bouncing kick.

It was mindless and Halfpenny punished him, making it 19-11 to the sounds of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

An eight-point lead can feel like double that in a cup final but Clermont had to keep playing, keep trying to breakthrough Toulon's red defensive wall. 

Every hesitant carry from Clermont though was begging for Toulon to turn them over, with Armitage and his team-mates winning penalties when required.

Starting to work their big ball carriers through the narrow channels, Toulon oozed confidence and with every attack threatened to kill off Clermont's hopes for good heading into the final quarter.

They needed magic and Abendanon, whose error before half-time led to Bastareaud's try, supplied a moment of astonishing brilliance. 

The former England man chipped over the defence after Habana's hashed clearance and collected a perfect bounce to stroll over and score in front of the Clermont faithful. The conversion from Lopez both made it a one-point game and blew the contest wide open at 19-18.

Ali Williams had the chance to crush Clermont's resistance but he knocked on trying to ground the ball right in the corner after Toulon again dominated the restart.

Williams' error might have been a sign that this was at last to be Clermont's day, but Mitchell burned that concept down with a magical solo try.

The former Wallaby skipped his way through six tacklers with hip-jinking, swerving run ten minutes from time in a moment to match Abendanon's brilliance.

Crucially, the missed conversion left Clermont with some hope at 24-18 down, with Mike Delany's cut up the middle once again drawing a roar from the men in yellow. Again though, Toulon's breakdown work was too good.

Clermont would get one more chance, a scrum penalty kicked for touch only for Delany to miss. Another twist in an increasingly crazy tale.

With a minute left, Clermont camped in Toulon's 22, needing a try for victory. They couldn't find an answer, a penalty for taking out Habana in the air signalling the end. And history of the highest order for Toulon.

What a final.

The scorers:

For Clermont:
Tries: Fofana, Abendanon
Cons: Lopez
Pens: Lopez 2

For Toulon:

Tries: Bastareaud, Mitchell

Cons: Halfpenny

Pens: Halfpenny 4

Clermont: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Napolioni Nalaga, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Damien Chouly (c), 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Vincent Debaty.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Thomas Domingo, 18 Clément Ric, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Julien Bardy, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Aurélien Rougerie.

Toulon: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Juan Martin Hernandez, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman (c), 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Xavier Chiocci.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Alexandre Menini, 18 Levan Chilachava, 19 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 20 Virgile Bruni, 21 Rudi Wulf, 22 Frédéric Michalak, 23 Romain Taofifenua. 

Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), George Clancy (Ireland)
TMO: Graham Hughes (England)

by Ben Coles at Twickenham