The short side returns to Planet Rugby as we study the main talking points ahead of this weekend’s Top 14 final between Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne.
Top 14 final– Toulouse v Clermont Auvergne
The French domestic campaign comes to an end on June 15, almost 10 months after it started, when the top-two from the regular season go head-to-head at the Stade de France. Both were comfortable winners in their last-four contests, with Toulouse beating La Rochelle 20-6 and Clermont overcoming Lyon 33-13, which duly set up a thrilling finale.
They have clearly been the best sides in the competition throughout, losing just 10 matches between, while the duo are also the most aesthetically pleasing to watch. It wasn’t long ago that Ugo Mola was teetering on the brink at Les Rouge et Noir, having guided them to a 12th place finish in 2016/17, but the head coach has revitalised the club since, playing the type of rugby they became synonymous for in the 1990s and 2000s.
There is a youthful exuberance about the squad, who go onto the field without fear, and they have produced some stunning rugby this year, but Mola’s charges will have to be wary of the dangerous Les Jaunards.
Franck Azema’s team are more experienced in these occasions and have a nice balance to the squad. Their pack is gargantuan and the backline is dangerous, particularly out wide, with Alivereti Raka and Damian Penaud in excellent form against Lyon. The teams were separated by 15 points in the table but this encounter is too close to call. It should be a thriller.
Wingers @PenaudD and @raka_alivereti combine to book @ASMOfficiel's place in the 2019 @top14rugby final v @StadeToulousain. Watch it next Saturday at 7.45pm on Sky Sports Action. pic.twitter.com/l3xWf9Sb1U
— Sky Sports Rugby (@SkySportsRugby) June 9, 2019
Toulouse’s player to watch – Jerome Kaino
The former All Black has enjoyed an excellent season since joining at the start of the 2018/19 season and is vital if they are to overcome Clermont on Saturday. Auvergne have a particularly potent back-row, especially when you consider the outstanding Peceli Yato often starts on the bench, and Kaino needs to be at his best in the final.
Following 81 caps for New Zealand, his experience could also be telling, especially in a side where other members of the spine are not used to playing in these occasions. Hooker Peato Mauvaka, scrum-half Antoine Dupont and fly-half/full-back Thomas Ramos are the new breed of French players who could be regulars in the national side over the coming years, but Kaino’s influence will help them this weekend.
— Telegraph Rugby (@TelegraphRugby) April 20, 2019
Clermont’s player to watch – Damian Penaud
The wing, who started off his professional career as a centre, may have endured a torrid time against England in the Six Nations, but he has been otherwise exceptional this season. While his defence needs work, Penaud is devastating on attack and is remarkably difficult to contain for any side.
Quick, with exceptional footwork and balance, the 22-year-old has all the assets of a top class back three player, but he is also incredibly strong and can create something with little space. Will surely be first choice for France in the World Cup, whether out wide or in the midfield, and is someone Toulouse will have to look out for on Saturday.
Damian Penaud is special talent 👏👏 pic.twitter.com/YayT2A4jbX
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) December 1, 2018
Battle to watch – the respective half-backs
Antoine Dupont has been the form half-back in France this year, but Clermont certainly have a more stable combination in Greig Laidlaw and Camille Lopez. Zack Holmes’ niggling injury has caused a certain amount of consternation for Mola and the Dupont-Thomas Ramos partnership struggled in the semi-final.
Sebastien Bezy came on in the second half, rekindling the unit which performed so well in the Champions Cup quarter-final, and Toulouse were much more effective, but Auvergne certainly have the edge there going into the showpiece event.
Les Rouge et Noir arguably have the greater individual talent in those positions but collectively Les Jaunards will expect to win the key duel between the half-backs.
Second of Antoine Dupont's two tries last night. Similar to the one he scored against Toulon, first was also great: pic.twitter.com/Otsp0LWMiw
— Paul Eddison (@pauleddison) October 9, 2017
Subplot to watch – Clermont’s final record
Having experience in the decision-making positions is huge for Clermont, who have often faltered when it has really mattered. Their results in finals are abysmal after suffering nine successive losses in the showpiece event before they finally ended their hoodoo in 2010.
It has been similarly poor in Europe’s top-tier competition, succumbing to defeats in 2013, ’15 and ’17. However, they managed to win the Top 14 two years ago and their dominant triumph in the Challenge Cup recently suggested that they have overcome the issues which have plagued them throughout their history. The ‘chokers’ tag is starting to dissipate but a loss on Saturday would raise the debate again as to their mental state in big games.
Toulouse: 15 Cheslin Kolbe, 14 Yoann Huget, 13 Sofiane Guitoune, 12 Pita Ahki, 11 Maxime Médard, 10 Thomas Ramos, 9 Antoine Dupont, 8 Jerome Kaino, 7 François Cros, 6 Rynhard Elstadt, 5 Joe Tekori, 4 Richie Arnold, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Peato Mauvaka, 1 Cyril Baille
Replacements: 16 Guillaume Marchand, 17 Clement Castets, 18 Piula Faasalele, 19 Selevasio Tolofua, 20 Richie Gray, 21 Sébastien Bézy, 22 Romain Ntamack, 23 Maks van Dyk
Clermont: 15 Isaia Toeava, 14 Damian Penaud, 13 George Moala, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Alivereti Raka, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Greig Laidlaw, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Alexandre Lapandry, 6 Arthur Iturria, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Rabah Slimani, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Etienne Falgoux
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Loni Uhila, 18 Peceli Yato, 19 Judicael Cancoriet, 20 Charlie Cassang, 21 Tim Nanai-Williams, 22 Apisai Naqalevu, 23 Davit Zirakashvili