Cotter's romantics no match for Toulon's bruising realists
THE overriding question for today's Heineken Cup final is whether this is the dawn of a new period of French hegemony in Europe.
Clermont Auvergne and Toulon qualified for the final on merit and all others have suffered as a result of their consistently top-class performances.
With two clubs in the final, France are guaranteed seven places in the 2013/14 Heineken Cup and there is plenty of evidence to support the belief that France is once again getting serious about the competition they refer to as the 'H-Cup'.
Racing Metro, for example, will boast the considerable talents of Jonathan Sexton, Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts next season. Toulon have also been busy with the chequebook and South African wing Bryan Habana will add further international flair to their squad.
Clermont have been uncharacteristically quiet in the transfer market, but that could have much to do with the possible departure of coach Vern Cotter at season's end.
Whatever the future holds, as this is both Clermont's and Toulon's first appearance in the final, a new name will be inscribed on the trophy tonight.
The romantics will surely favour Clermont, for they are a team overflowing with talent, invention and genius. Clermont have swept all before them en route to the final and, if they do triumph, will create a slice of tournament history in the process as no club has ever won all nine matches in a season.
Before we prematurely anoint them champions, though, the question that must be asked is: can they live with the physical brutality Toulon will assuredly bring to this game?
Toulon are all about power and heft. They will seek to hunt Clermont's play-makers down and grind them into the Aviva Stadium sod.
Clermont attack with the precision of a surgeon's scalpel. They look to exploit mismatches and to create gaps where none exist.
In this endeavour, the dancing feet of Wesley Fofana and wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga are their game-changers. If they are afforded time and the smallest sliver of space, they have the ability to cause absolute havoc.
Toulon also have some magnificent individual talents. Their game, however, is more broadsword than scalpel.
They will attempt to slow the ball down and negate Clermont's quick breakers, all the while cranking up the physicality in the hope of forcing turn-over ball or frustrating Clermont into conceding penalties for Jonny Wilkinson to kick.
Theirs is a very pragmatic game-plan, based on an ability to keep the scoreboard ticking over. They don't offer a lot in open play and, in many ways, they and Clermont are polar opposites.
It is telling that Clermont (91 points) and Toulon (90) finished over 10 points ahead of third-placed Toulouse in the Top 14 – they were clearly the outstanding teams in the French domestic champion-ship.
The team's contrasting styles makes this an exceptionally difficult game to call.
It pits Toulon's blunt instrument – think England a couple of seasons ago – against the running flair of Clermont. Toulon's pressure game has the potential to expose the perceived brittle nature of Clermont's Brock James and Lee Byrne and they will both be ruthlessly targeted.
If they withstand the pressure, then Clermont certainly have the weaponry. The inclusion of captain Aurelien Rougerie is a huge fillip in this regard, as he will provide the leadership and composure that they lacked in the second half of their semi-final against Munster.
Clermont's chances of success do not lie exclusively with their array of star backs. It hinges more on how they cope with Toulon's pack of beasts. If Clermont do not at least gain parity in the scrum, then it's very difficult to see them triumphing.
But, if they can hold their own in the set-piece and get the likes of Julien Bonnaire and Damien Chouly moving off the base with quick ball, the pitch will open up for their runners.
Clermont showed in their semi-final that if they are attacked and not allowed quick off-loads they are vulnerable and Toulon – with the likes of Mathieu Bastareaud and Matt Giteau squeezing up – seem perfectly prepared to disrupt their natural flowing game.
Toulon's team is packed with bruisers. Their back-row, in particular, is especially tasty. South African Danie Rossouw is a human wrecking ball and they will lean heavily on his abilities and those of compatriot Bakkies Botha in the second-row.
The romantics will hope for a Clermont victory as it would be a triumph for free-flowing rugby and would surely be good for the image of the competition.
Unfortunately, flair sometimes just isn't enough to counteract brute strength and a water-tight defence.
Clermont Auvergne v Toulon, Live, Sky Sports 1, 5.0