Our rugby scribe previews Sunday afternoon’s Top 14 Grand Final between Toulon and Clermont Auvergne.
It’s not the fairytale final we were all hoping for but it is a blockbuster with France’s two heavyweights set to duke it out in front of a packed Stade de France this Sunday. While Toulon were the flag bearers when it came to running rugby in the late 2000’s, they have been surpassed by Clermont, who play some of the most attractive rugby in the northern hemisphere.
So will Toulon’s battling brutes pull a rabbit out of the hat and win yet another Top 14 title or will Favourites Clermont end their seven-year title drought?
RC Toulon v ASM Clermont Auvergne | Sunday 4 June | Stade de France | 20:45
To Win (80 Mins)
Toulon 47/20 | Draw 20/1 | Clermont 7/20
Sometimes the stars just align and other times you just a bloody lucky bunch of overpaid rugby players who had everything go in their favour. I don’t know how many leprechauns Toulon have on their books or if their owner, Mourad Boudjelallal, has opened a horseshoe factory in the outskirts of Paris. Whatever the case is, this Toulon squad should definitely buy a few lotto tickets as they’re likely to come in with the wave of luck they are currently riding.
While Mike Ford’s side must be applauded for the manner in which they pulled up their socks near the backend of the campaign, I cannot emphasise how lucky they are to have made the final. They looked dead and buried with four weeks of the round-robin phase of the Top 14 to go but a surprise away win over Bordeaux and home victories over Toulouse, Castres and Pau saw them claim a playoff game against Castres. Fate was on their side once again as they scraped to a narrow 26-22 victory against Castres.
Fast forward a week, and the gods again smiled upon those in red and black as an 80th-minute drop goal from young gun Anthony Belleau saw them claim an unlikely victory over La Rochelle. Even more spectacularly, the build up to the drop goal came courtesy of 50-metre touch finder from the aforementioned Belleau.
Toulon are going to need more luck on their side this weekend if they are to overcome Clermont. Their opponents have been in sensational touch this term finishing second in the Top 14 regular season and advancing to the final of the European Rugby Champions Cup. The last thing Toulon can afford is to get involved in a game of touch rugby, which will be Clermont’s ultimate goal. If Toulon start throwing the ball around, then they are likely to come up short against opponents who are capable of scoring from deep within their own half.
You can’t help but admire Clermont’s determination to play attacking rugby even when the odds are stacked against them. Last week’s semi-final victory over Racing Metro epitomised their attack at all costs credo. Despite losing Flip van der Merve to a red card only minute into the second half, the Vulcans continued to attack, building up a 17 point lead heading into the final 15-minutes of the game. And while Racing did hit back with two late tries, Clermont were never in danger of losing this fixture.
It’s unlikely that Clermont will go into their shells here. It’s just completely against their nature to go the conservative route. I can see them looking to move the ball away from the breakdown as quickly as possible in a bit to stretch the Toulon defence. This tactic is likely to reap dividends as Toulon have a few backs who are rather slow off the mark. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Camile Lopez put in a few delicate chips in behind the Toulon defensive lines as the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud are rather slow on the turn.
This is finals rugby after all, so the Clermont forwards will have just as big a role to play as their all-star backs. They are at a slight disadvantage here as giant lock, Flip van der Merve has been suspended for last week’s dangerous tackle. The former Bulls man is likely to be replaced by French international, Paul Jedrasiak.
The Stats That Matter
Clermont scored 800 points at an average of 30.7 points per game during the regular Top 14 season while Toulon scored 674 points per game at an average of 25.9 points per game.
The two sides have never met in a Top 14 final. The last time Clermont were involved in the Grand Final was in 2015 where they went down 19-6 to Stade Francais. Toulon have contested four of the last five finals, winning only once.
The two Round Robin games between the sides were won by whoever hosted the game with Toulon winning 23-21 at the Felix Stade Mayol and Clermont running out 30-6 victors at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.
Verdict: Clermont 7/20
Toulon’s lucky streak has to come to an end at some point and I can see Clermont stopping them in their tracks. Get on The Vulcans to win it at?