Written by Darry Worthington for @Hollywoodbets. Follow them both on Twitter and Facebook now!
Toulouse v RC Toulon | Sunday 26 December | Stade Ernest-Wallon | 21:50
Two of the most well-funded teams in the French Top 14 will do battle on Sunday evening at the Stade Ernest-Wallon. The duo have endured contrasting fortunes over the past fortnight, with Toulon winning both their European Champions Cup ties against Leinster while Toulouse went down to Ulster home and away.
So which of these multi-million-pound squads will claim the points? I'll try figure it out bellow.
To Win (80 Mins)
Uninspired, insipid, and lacking courage. These are some of the criticisms that were heaped on the Toulouse squad after successive defeats to Ulster in the Champions Cup. Whilst they put in a much more impressive shift in the second leg, their defensive frailties still came home to roost. Slipped tackles and an unorganised defensive line allowed Ulster to bag three tries while Toulouse could only respond with a solitary try which came through centre Gael Fickou. The two defeats have effectively ended Toulouse's hopes of qualifying for the next round of the European Rugby Champions Cup.
While you'd have to be a Capital Hill spin doctor to turn Toulouse's poor showing in the Champions Cup into a positive, there is a slight silver lining for the French Club; they can now focus solely on their domestic league. And with them sitting second on the French Top 14 log, they'd be well advised to give their second stringers a bash in their remaining two European games.
Having said all that, they may well find themselves way down in seventh on the Top 14 log if they fail to beat Toulon and a few of the teams around them manage to get a positive result this weekend.
So how do the men from Toulouse ensure they retain their lofty log position? There's a theory floating around the rugby world that if you shut down whoever's at flyhalf for Toulon, then you effectively shut down the whole backline. If Toulouse are to try and implement this tactic, they are going to need their loosies to step up to the mark. With Thierry Dusatiour, Yacouba Camara and Imanol Harinordoquy set to make up the starting back row and Florian Fritz at inside centre, Toulouse have the players to shut down Toulon's pivot. Whether they can up their games to the required level, is another story altogether,
Toulouse have been a totally different beast domestically. They've won seven out of their ten Top 14 fixtures thus far. They do however, face a stern test this weekend with Toulon winning five out of their last six games in all competitions.
Once again it wasn't vintage Toulon but they still managed to walk away with a victory last weekend. The win has seen them move up to second in Pool 5 of the European Rugby Champions Cup. We'll focus on their European plight in the coming weeks, though. For now, let's turn our attention back to the matter at hand.
The most expensive squad in world rugby will go into this clash with their tails up. They currently occupy third spot on the log but are tied on points with Toulouse. A win here would see "Le Galactico's" move into at least second spot. They have the tools to do just this, but it may not be as simple as starting their best 15 and giving the ball width.
As I touched on in the above segment, Toulon have struggled to win games when their flyhalf hasn't been given space to operate in. It seems as though the Toulon management have also identified this as their Achilles heel - and I suspect this is the reason behind them keeping Quade Cooper on the bench. Cooper is a bit of a maverick, who thrives in space, but as soon as you shut him down, his expansive playing style becomes more of a hindrance than an asset. I waxed lyrical about Copper after the former Queensland Red's debut for Toulon a month or so ago. And while I still think he is an exceedingly talented player. I feel Matt Giteau needs to continue in the flyhalf berth. The veteran utility back has shown he's able to run proceedings even when his pack isn't dominating and there's not much space for him to work with.
Whether Bernard Laporte and his brains trust decide to continue with Giteau is up for debate. They may think it's a better option to give him a week's rest. After all, Giteau is no spring chicken and playing three games in the space of 19 days is a big ask for anyone.
Laporte also has a few selection dilemmas to deal when it comes to his starting back row. Dillon Armitage put in a flawless shift last weekend, whilst Springboks Duane Vermeulen and Juan Smith also impressed. One of them may well drop to the bench this weekend, though. The reason being is Georgian giant Mamuka Gorgodze. The Georgian skipper has become somewhat of a cult figure in Toulon since his move to the club last year. The big bruiser brings a physical presence that even the two South Africans can't match.
This game may well hinge on how conservative Laporte's team selection is. If he fields Giteau at ten, his side should be able to canter to victory.
Verdict: Toulon 11/10
While they are yet to put in a complete performance this term, I still think Toulon have more than enough quality to inflict a large defeat on their opponents.
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