English flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson will seek to add a continental crown to his honours when his Toulon take on French rivals Clermont in the European Cup final on Saturday.
The match at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium might be between two French Top 14 clubs, but on paper it is a truly international clash, with top players from across the globe ready to battle it out for the ultimate honour in northern hemisphere club rugby.
Clermont, with eight wins on the bounce and a squad of international superstars, are slight favourites, leading Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal to claim he has already accepted second place.
“We are up against a very impressive team,” Boudjellal said. “We would be stupid to think we are better than Clermont. So we are preparing to lose. We will be the runners up and it’s not that bad.”
Of course, the outspoken comic book tycoon is nothing if not mischievous with his words, and nobody else in the red and black will be expecting a loser’s medal on Saturday evening.
Clermont won 24-21 in the first league meeting this season, but the pair shared to spoils in a 26-26 stalemate in Toulon, indicating there’s not much between these two wealthy units.
Wilkinson scored ten points when the sides last met, and the playmaker who booted England to a memorable World Cup victory in 2003 is certain to have a say in the outcome on Saturday.
“There aren’t many teams in Europe that can claim anything like the amount of bulk Clermont have, but Toulon are definitely one of them,” said former Munster and Ireland backrower Alan Quinlan.
“If they can keep it nip and tuck, they have an ace up their sleeve, because for all their vast array of talent, I still come back to one man. I come back to Wilkinson. He just stands out.
“Clermont are a better-balanced team but Toulon have the match-winner in the number 10 shirt.”
Clermont, making a first appearance in the European Cup final, may feel destined for victory, but coach Vern Cotter admits his side can’t afford to let Wilkinson’s left boot dominate a game that may be decided by kicking.
“For us, it is about being able to get fast ball, play a high tempo, keep them moving,” said the Kiwi. “That’s our basic game plan. They are a very physical team, they dominate and then create gaps and exploit them.”
Clermont can count on the trusted boot of Morgan Parra should it come to a kicking duel, with the French scrumhalf leading Wilkinson in the tournament’s top points scoring charts, with 109 so far.
While both teams boast incredibly physical packs, the neutrals will be salivating at the talent on show in the backs.
Clermont’s Napolioni Nalaga and Wesley Fofana have bagged 12 tries between them, while Delon Armitage, Rudi Wulf and Mathieu Basteraud will keep Clermont’s defenders on their toes.
“I am very eager to do battle against Toulon,” said Fofana, a standout performer for France in their poor Six Nations showing.
“This is a final and if we win that will be an exceptional achievement.
“We are playing another French club but we are preparing for a European Cup final and we know more about Toulon than a foreign team because we’ve already played two games this season against Toulon. For me that is a positive.
“I think the score will be extremely tight, whenever we play Toulon the difference on the scoreboard is very little, and I’m sure there will be no difference of 30 points on Saturday night!”
Fofana added: “The desire will be present on both sides – as you would expect in such a massive game – and we are well aware that Jonny Wilkinson will punish any of our mistakes.”
Players to watch:
For Clermont: The little puppet master Morgan Para is going to be the player to watch amongst the backs for Clermont. He is this tournaments leading point scorer and in a final it is going to be the battle of the boot. With electric backs like Wesley Fofana, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Lee Byrne along with the experience of Brok James pulling the strings at flyhalf. There are some abrasive players in the forwards with the veterans Nathan Hines and Julien Bonnaire leading from the front for Clermont.
For Toulon: Need we say more that Jonny Wilkinson? The man has reignited his rugby career to the point that he should be heading to Australia with the British and Irish Lions. The pin-point goal-kicker and World Cup winner plays in yet another final and will be the man to watch. Two men amongst the forwards to look out for are Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw. Two further World Cup winners who are as abrasive as they come. Outwide, Mathieu Bastareaud will always pose a threat with ball in hand and the former Blues finisher Rudi Wulf is a man who is no stranger to the try-line.
Head to head: The massive contest is going to be in the locks. The battle between two of the biggest and most physical locks in world rugby – Bakkies Botha and Nathan Hines. These two might be heading into the evening of their careers but they have not compromised their physicality at all. They are two men that do not hold back at all and don’t expect anything less in this final. The goal-kickering contest is also going to be a massive contest and Para against Wilkinson could be the difference between the two sides.
Recent results: These two sides have never met in a European Cup final before. The two sides met in the French Top 14 in April and they drew 26-26 and when they met in the early stages of the Top 14 Clermont snuck past Toulon 24-21. These close results sets up a hugely exciting prospect this weekend.
Prediction: There is absolutely nothing separating these teams on paper and in the Top 14 it is only one point that keepts them apart with Clermont on top with 91 points. With this in mind, they do not have Jonny Wilkinson. As he proved in the semifinal he still has what it takes to win big matches and that is what could be the different in this final. The man has won a World Cup and has been around the block – twice. Toulon will take the cup, but, by less than five points.
ASM Clermont Auvergne: 15 Lee Byrne, 14 Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13 Aurelien Rougerie (captain), 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Napolioni Nalaga, 10 Brock James, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Damien Chouly, 7 Gerhard Vosloo, 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Nathan Hines, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 Ti’I Paulo, 17 Vincent Debaty, 18 Clement Ric, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Julien Bardy, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 23 David Skrela, 23 Regan King.
Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Rudi Wulf, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Jonny Wilkinson (captain), 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Danie Rossouw, 5 Nick Kennedy, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Sebastien Bruno, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Davit Kubriashvili, 19 Joe van Niekerk, 20 Steffon Armitage, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 Frederic Michalak, 23 Jocelino Suta.
Date: Saturday, 18 May
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 17.00 (17.00 GMT)
Expected weather: Soggy conditions expected with heavy rain on the cards and a maximum temperature of 11°C
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ire)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (Eng), George Clancy (Ire)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (Ire)