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History beckons for RC Toulon at Twickenham Stadium in the inaugural Champions Cup final. Can they measure up to the task and make it three European Cup titles in a row?
The greatest club sides since the game went professional in 1995 have all been measured by their success in the European Cup and Super Rugby competitions. In the north we have marvelled at Guy Noves taking Toulouse to six finals in 15 years and winning four of them.
We saw Martin Johnson’s Leicester Tigers become the first team to win back to back titles in 2001 and 2002 and then cried and sang along with the Munster Rugby fans when they finally won in 2006 after two final failures – and repeated their triumph in 2008.
We then got into the Leinster Rugby era with three European Cups in four years and then a Challenge Cup victory to add a year later. Then along came Mourad Boudjellal’s Toulon terrors.
Saturday’s clash with ASM Clermont Auvergne, a re-run of the 2013 final in Dublin, will be the club’s fifth European final in six seasons. The fact they lost they lost the first two, Challenge Cup battles with Cardiff Blues (2010) and Biarritz Olympique (2012), at least shows they are human, but it would be a brave person who bets against them overtaking Leicester and Leinster by becoming the first side to notch a hat-trick of European Cups.
The only other side to achieve that is the much heralded Canterbury Crusaders. They won the Super Rugby title in 1998, 1999 and 2000 with players like Todd Blackadder, Andrew Mehrtens, Norm Maxwell, Leon McDonald and Darryl Gibson in their ranks.
The legendary status created for the Crusaders by coaches Wayne Smith and Robbie Deans is now being mirrored in Toulon by Bernard Laporte and, if his side can deliver a third European crown, they will be able to stand shoulder to shoulder with the great New Zealand side.
Their only defeat in eight games in this season’s tournament came at Welford Road when Leicester Tigers ran out 25-21 victors’ in round three. Even so, they will be shooting for their ninth successive knock-out phase triumph in the final.
That shows their quality when the going gets tough – and nothing could be tougher than trying to beat a Clermont side hell bent on finally winning Europe’s top prize. Toulon’s Australian midfield magician Matt Giteau wasn’t joking this week when he described Clermont as “a very beautiful side” and installed them as favourites for the weekend.
With a back division that can explode into match-winning action from any position, and a pack that took the English champions Northampton Saints to the cleaners in the quarter-finals and then polished off last season’s finalists Saracens in the semis, they are the complete package.
And unlike in 2013, when they went all the way to the final in Dublin, led at half-time, but eventually lost 16-15, this time they have a master at winning on the big occasion in their corner. Former Leinster forwards coach Jono Gibbes has made a major impact in Clermont working alongside Franck Azema and is seeking a fourth European Cup final victory in his short career.
The confidence he has instilled into his players, along with the meticulous attention to detail in analysing opponents and eradicating weaknesses in his own team, has helped to make Clermont a more all round team this season. Now they have to go out and prove they have the stomach for the big occasion.
Having fallen at the final hurdle in 2013, they went out a round earlier last year when they were hammered 46-6 by Saracens at Twickenham. Will there be any lingering scars from that occasion, or did they lay that ghost to rest by beating the English side in the semi-final?
Clermont have done everything except win the title in recent years. They were Challenge Cup winners in 2007, have claimed their first Top 14 title since then and are now into their second European Cup final in three seasons.
It is their best shot at glory, although there are some tough characters to overcome before they reach their ultimate destination. Bakkies Botha, Carl Hayman and Ali Williams have been among the greatest players of their generation in the world and they are all saying ‘farewell’ to European competition this weekend, followed by rugby as a whole at the end of the season.
Emotion will be running high in the Toulon camp as their team mates do all they can to send them out on a high note. Will that be a determining factor in what has all the makings of a classic final?
All will be revealed at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday in a game that simply cannot be missed!
- After defeating Leinster in the semi-final, Toulon have now won eight knockout games in a row in Europe's top flight. No other club has won more than six knockout fixtures on the bounce.
- That run of eight wins has seen Toulon lift the trophy twice, beating Clermont in their first final in 2013, and a ninth victory would make RCT the first club to lift the trophy in three consecutive seasons.
- After losing their first three knockout games in the competition, Clermont have won six out of nine since then.
- Three of the last four European Cup finals have been won by more than 10 points.
- The 2013 decider between Clermont and Toulon was just the third final to be won by a single point (16-15), although two other finals have gone to extra time (1996 Toulouse 21 Cardiff Blues 18; 2005 Toulouse 18 Stade Francais Paris 12).
- This is the fifth time the final has been held at Twickenham but just the second involving a French club. Toulouse lost 27-20 to Wasps in the 2004 showpiece.
- Toulon have scored nine tries during the current campaign after winning possession in their own half – a competition high.
- Clermont have scored two of the four tournament tries this season from a lineout steal.
- Clermont have the best tackling success rate in the tournament, completing 89% of their attempts, while Toulon have conceded the fewest metres per game this season (298).
- Leigh Halfpenny needs eight points to bring up his century for the campaign.
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RC Toulon have joined the realms of the greatest club sides in the history of the game after becoming the first team in the northern hemisphere to win the European Cup three years in a row.
A sensational solo try from Australian wing Drew Mitchell made the game safe for the reigning champions after Clermont full back Nick Abendanon had hauled his side back into the game with another try out of the top drawer.
Those two tries alone were worth the admission price for the crowd of 56,662 at Twickenham Stadium and will go down among the greatest scored in the 20 European Cup finals to date.
Clermont had to reassemble their matchday squad when outside half Brock James suffered a thigh injury in the warm-up and that brought French international Camille Lopez into the starting XV at No 10. And it was Lopez who got the scoreboard moving with an early penalty.
The respective boots of Lopez and Leigh Halfpenny for Toulon kept the score moving and the Welshman ended with three penalties from his four shots at goal in the opening half, while Lopez hit the mark with two fro three. Halfpenny also added the extras on the stroke of half-time to Mathieu Bastareuad’s try that gave the champions a lead of 16-11 at the break.
Bastareaud found his way over the line on the short side of a ruck in the Clermont try to match an earlier effort from his French international centre partner, Wesley Fofana. He exploded into action when a charged down kick from Seb Tillous-Borde went to him 40 metres out and he streaked to the corner or a try that lifted Clermont hearts.
Toulon put a stranglehold on the game in the third quarter and another Halfpenny penalty stretched the lead to eight points at 19-11. Short on possession, Clermont showed their were big on heart as they found a way back into the game with a memorable moment of skill from Abendanon as he returned a loose kick out of his 22 by Bryan Habana with interest.
Having taken the ball, Abendanon beat the fist defender, ran into the Toulon 22 and then chipped the ball over the top of the Heineken Man of the Match Ali Williams. He ran past him, regathered the ball and scored behind the posts.
The conversion from Lopez cut the gap to a single point at 19-18 and led to a sensational final 10 minutes. Williams almost scored in the corner for Toulon, the TMO ruling out the try, and then Mitchell put on the after burners to showcase his skills to the Australian selectors as they look for players for the World Cup later in the year.
Mitchell was put into a gap by Tillous-Borde on the Clermont 10 metre line and proceeded to make his way to the line with a run that beat six defenders. It was a sensational effort, although Halfpenny’s missed conversion still left the door open for Clermont to snatch the title with a converted try.
They threw the kitchen sink into the closing minutes, but couldn’t find a way through the Toulon tacklers. Nigel Owens blew the whistle to end the game after Habana had claimed a mark 10 metres from his line and the celebrations began for the Toulon history makers.