RC Toulon v Bath Rugby | Sunday 10 January | Stade Felix Mayol | 17:10
Toulon and Bath will square off this weekend in the pick of the European rugby action. With both sides level on points in Pool 5 and only three games left to play until the tournament moves into its knockout phase, this game promises to be an absolute classic.
So who will take a step closer towards qualification for the knockouts and who will be left to pick up the pieces and plan for next year?
To Win (80 Mins)
With all the quality this Toulon side boasts, it’s ridiculous that they cannot string a decent run of wins together. One week they’re spectacular and then the following week they look like a bunch of lost schoolboys. Is it simply a case of too many Michelin Star chefs spoiling the broth or are their deeper problems at Toulon?
Their past three games illustrate a few of my above points perfectly. Having beaten a Leinster side – who were as pumped up as an Ibiza DJ – by 20 points to 16 three weeks ago, many pundits thought we were going to see this Toulon side finally click. Once again the pundits – myself included – were horribly misinformed. The Galacticos of world rugby went down to Toulouse by 23 points in the French Top 14 the following week.
They were also extremely lucky to have not ended up with egg on their face last weekend. Having taken an eight-point lead into halftime against a much inferior Pau outfit, I was fully expecting Toulon to blow their opponents away. Bernard Laporte’s charges were unable to pull away from their opponents and two late Pau tries - the first courtesy of Conrad Smith and the second from the referee - ensured Toulon were in for a nail-biting final few minutes.
While a penalty try is never the most impressive thing to witness – unless it’s courtesy of a dominant scrum and you’re part of the front row old boys' club - Smith’s try was a thing of beauty. Having received the ball just outside the Toulon 22, Smith dummied two of his former All Black teammates – Ma’a Nonu and Tom Taylor- on his way to crossing the whitewash. Toulon managed to hang on for a vital win but their defensive frailties and inability to click on attack will have left Laporte a worried man.
They’re going to have to do a hell of a lot of work on their defensive side of their game this week as Bath have a centre pairing that can exploit even the slightest gap. They may also need to switch some of the backline personal for the clash if they are to plug the gaping holes that were present last week.
With this in mind, I think we're likely to see Mathieu Basteraud come in for Maxime Mermoz and Matt Giteau come in for Quade Cooper. I can also see Tom Taylor and Juan Martin Fernadez Lobbe also being replaced in the run-on XV. While I’m not too sure as to who will come in for Taylor, I’m almost certain Juan Smith or Steffon Armitage will come in for Lobbe.
I honestly think that Bath would have been top of the Pool 5 pops had Jonathon Josephs been fit at the start of the season. The England international has been nothing short of sensational since returning from a long-term injury layoff. His combination play with fellow centre Craig Eastmond has been a joy to watch and the duo are likely to play a massive role for Bath this weekend.
Another man who’s likely to play a key role for the English club is Springbok Francois Louw. The former Western Province man has just signed a contract extension with his current club and he will surely be aiming to impress this weekend. He’s going to have his work cut out for him, however, as Toulon have some world class loose forwards. If Juan Smith does come into the Toulon starting XV then this game will definitely have a bit of spice added to it. It will also make the fixture a lot more interesting for South African rugby supporters.
Bath may be coming up against the some of the best in the business this Sunday but head coach Mike Ford insists he’s rather confident heading into this fixture. And why wouldn’t he be? Toulon have blown hot and cold all season and despite having two of the best centres in the history of rugby in their squad they have been culpable of leaving gaping holes in the middle of the park. If Toulon’s coaching staff don’t rectify this, then Josephs and Eastmond are in for a field day.
Verdict: Bath 6/1
It’s a long shot, especially with the game being played in front of a hostile crowd, but I honestly fancy Bath to upset the applecart this Sunday and at 6/1 it’s worth sticking 20 rand on it.
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