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Thursday 18 January 2018

Neil Francis: Prospect of another Toulon title leaves me feeling sick

Toulon's fly-half Frederic Michalak kicks the ball during the French Top 14 rugby union match La Rochelle vs Toulon on April 25, 2015 at the Marcel Deflandre stadium
Toulon's fly-half Frederic Michalak kicks the ball during the French Top 14 rugby union match La Rochelle vs Toulon on April 25, 2015 at the Marcel Deflandre stadium
Brock James, ASM Clermont Auvergne, on his way to score his side's second try in the Heineken Cup Final 2012/13, ASM Clermont Auvergne v Toulon
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Years ago, while Ireland were on a short tour of France, we had the misfortune between travelling the length and breadth of the country to be brought to the semi-final of the Bouclier de Brennus - The Top 16, I think it was back then.

Narbonne played Agen in what could only be described as the football equivalent of a 0-0 draw. Un-anaesthetised haemorrhoid surgery would have been more fun. There were some stellar names in both back divisions - Patrick Esteve for Narbonne and Philippe Sella and Pierre Berbizier for Agen.

They were innocent bystanders in a game of biff. The off-the-ball stuff you wouldn't have seen on a bad day in Beirut. How the two packs in their entirety weren't sent from the field was a mystery, although we got a good feel for it a few days later when we played France - they do like dishing it out.

At the 1995 World Cup, I sat down with Sella and we talked about that match. While their national side were capable and most often did play a mesmerising form of Rugby Union, why did the powerhouse sides who were playing at the business end of the club competition turn the game into something you would see at the Five Points in New York?

His answer was succinct and to the point - "for zee international championship - zee flowing rugby. For zee club game - zee war."


La guerre - it does sound better in French. I have had to watch several seasons of Top 14 Rugby with Setanta - even Pat Spillane couldn't come up with a term to describe it. You couldn't make meaningful analysis of it and so I ended saying anything I wanted because I knew nobody was watching.

It is true that the top sides could, when they wanted to, open out the throttle and pulverise weaker sides, but when they play each other it is unwatchable. Fear of losing, which is a precursor to a team attempting to play, add in a soupcon of diffidence and laziness - as well as a decades-long attachment to percentages and you have the Top 14.

Agen and Narbonne are no longer in the Top 14 and are struggling at different ends of the table in Pro Division 2. Agen are second at the moment and in the four-team play-off for promotion. Narbonne are in danger of being relegated. James Coughlan's side Pau, after enormous investment from giant French petroleum company Total, have pissed through the group and have won automatic promotion to the Top 14.

D'argent parlant - as they say in the Pyrenees. Getting back out of the Pro D2 is usually very difficult.

Biarritz, twice Heineken Cup finalists and double Top 14 champions since 2000, are sixth at the moment and Fast Eddie faces the coup de grace if he doesn't at the very least get them into the play-offs.

Why are we talking about the Pro Division 2? The two finalists that play in the European Cup final spent a lot of time in the last 30 years in the Pro Division 2 and apart from the shining light of Toulouse who are the one true constant in French rugby, powerhouse teams and dynasties come and go. Clermont for all their 'pedigree' have won the Bouclier only once in 100 years. Toulon do have a track record but not as fabled as their hated neighbours Toulouse, but it is still worthy of respect.

Money has brought these two teams to the fore in the last seven/eight years and they are now undoubtedly the two most dominant sides in Europe.

Irish teams must observe them and learn how to play and beat them because this season and for the last few seasons our provinces have had their interest in the competition ended by them. This year it was Munster in the pool stages by Clermont, Ulster in the pool stages by Toulon, and we all saw what happened the week before last.

If you keep winning your matches you will eventually bump into them and if the 'luck' of the draw dictates that you must meet them in France for the knockout stage, it will usually mean more disappointment.

Both Leinster and Saracens didn't have the balls to go for it in their semis and decided that their own version of la guerre was the way to do it - when both of the French giants were vulnerable.

Back to that match between Agen and Narbonne. I think this final is going to be another war. Another awful final. I think Toulon are going to win it again and that just leaves me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

I am struggling to think of one player on their roster that you would want to have a pint with. The Armitage brothers through to Mathieu Bastareaud to Bakkies Botha - you know that at the highest levels in sport the nicest guys or the team that plays the best don't necessarily bring home the pot.

There are no gold medals for artistic merit or for men who have honour in their sporting endeavour. Players like Julien Bonnaire, Aurelien Rougerie or Morgan Parra deserve a European medal because of the type of rugby they play and the way they comport themselves on the field.

That will only compound the sense of disappointment on the field when they lose this Saturday. The comic book fella's crew did not play well in the semi-final.

Did Leinster neutralise them or discommode them? They probably did and the side in blue held onto the ball impressively - they didn't do much with it but it meant that Toulon couldn't have it either.

Toulon like dominating the pill and they struggle when they don't have it. They are very good defensively and so they can absorb pressure and this is what will happen in the final.

Clermont in 2013 final were by far the better side and should have converted 50pc of about half a dozen chances. You could see the hijack coming and I struggled to keep my chicken curry down when Delon Armitage scored while gleefully sneering at his chasers all the way to the try-line.

Jono Gibbes will have given the team from the Massif Central a shot in the arm of some much-needed pragmatism and a sense of when and where to be more clinical and cynical - for such a good side they are naive and they do suffer from dry throat.

I thought their dismantling of Northampton (the only team I dislike more than Toulon) was as good an 80 minutes of rugby that I have seen in this competition. They were a little too unambitious against Saracens who were able to deal with that lack of ambition. The graph is pointing down in terms of performance and they will not repeat their quarter-final fireworks!

If Clermont think they can win this final by playing la guerre, they will lose. High tempo and offload they will win - try and bump and grind and they will lose. People might think that Clermont's pragmatic approach will eventually yield gold - particularly after the heartache of 2013 after playing all the rugby.

At the time of writing, the teams have not been announced. Both French teams had a fault-line running through their command and Freddie Michalak and Brock James are among the flakiest, chokiest bottlers of all time.

If one or both are playing it could be a comedy of errors. If French out-half Camille Lopez is back and match-ready, he will make an appreciable difference for Clermont. If Brock James starts, Clermont will be in trouble. Bernie Laporte is clever enough to realise that Matt Giteau should be his 10. If Giteau is picked to start, then Toulon will win. If Freddie starts, this will be one jack-in-the-box final.

Meanwhile, the Irish provinces watch on, realising that this hegemony could go on for a while and there isn't much they can do about it.

Irish Independent

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