Thursday 22 March 2018

Quiet Twickenham can witness Toulon's giants bow out with medals

All-French final against stage fright-prone Clermont hardly keeps us up at night, but for some it can be a dream ending, writes Eddie Butler

Matt Giteau
Matt Giteau

A dream final tends to depend on the head in which it forms. An all-French final at Twickenham next Saturday isn't, for example, going to make many in Ireland purr in their sleep. But even in France, they are not sure that Clermont-Toulon is the best way to launch the new order of European rugby. It's not exactly keeping them awake at night - some dream, that - but it's niggling them a bit.

Well, some of them. The swathe of France covered by the Auvergne and the Var will be thinking only beautiful thoughts, that this final could not be better. But if it is for them the dream final, it doesn't seem to be the dream ticket, as in a travel voucher to England. The finest club players in Europe could be rattling around a third-full Twickenham. The date in early May was set by the French so that their Top 14, in which Clermont and Toulon are very much interested, can run uninterrupted to its conclusion.

The lack of allure to the Champions Cup final can be seen in Wales, where it has quickly been pointed out that Judgment Day III, the very all-Welsh double-header of derbies, will be better attended than the Twickenham final. This boast is a slight case of urchins writing graffiti on the wall of the estate in which they cannot set foot, but it will continue in every part of Europe - everywhere that isn't England and France - that fought and lost the Battle of Shifting Letters, where ERC became EPRC.

So, there is maybe a need for a charm offensive by the new masters, which is unlikely given the character of Mourad Boudjellal, the owner of Toulon. It is hardly his fault, he will argue, if his team stand on the verge of a third title. And does anyone think that Clermont Auvergne are going to overcome their historical inability to win a big prize by being charming?

Perhaps, then, it simply needs to be a good game. On that score it stands a better chance of delivering, even if the reality of modern French club rugby is far removed from anything dreamy. The brute force of both packs is the stuff of nightmares and you may have to be able to find fun in an abattoir to appreciate the confrontation between Bakkies Botha and Jamie Cudmore. If you like your meetings between second-rows to be jarring, then this could be for you.

Just as the old Springbok Bakkies is heading (post-match) into retirement, so, too, is the old All Black, Ali Williams, who should have brought a touch of elegance to the Toulon second-row, but who seems to have reached into the Bakkies bag of tricks in his dotage. A little tug on the shirt off the ball in the quarter-final against Wasps, a yellow card in the semi against Leinster. It's not easy to imagine Mourad telling Ali to go out waltzing, but it might be soothing for the lock to revert to being the good cop of the lock partnership.

There is always Matt Giteau to brighten any game and he may be seriously in the mood for this one. For the players, this is an occasion not to miss. As Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies have said from their respective camps, this is why they left Wales for Toulon and Clermont.

There is an added incentive for Giteau to show what Australia have been missing in recent years. A pathway has been opened into their World Cup squad by the relaxation of the rule that excludes their exiles. Giteau may not be Jonny Wilkinson with his place-kicking, but he has been perhaps the biggest all-round contributor of all the myriad imports to France's club culture.

Of equal influence in the semi-final against Saracens was another Australian, Brock James. He lacks the running menace of Giteau, but conducted the Clermont effort with authority, kicking with variety and accuracy. His chip for Wesley Fofana's try was expertly weighted. His tussle with his more acclaimed fellow countryman will be the antidote to the Botha-Cudmore wrestle. Who will win? Such is the long history of Clermont's failure on all their big days, bar the French championship won when Vern Cotter was in charge, that another disintegration can never be discounted. Their last visit to Twickenham was the worst of them all, a collapse against Saracens in last season's semi-final.

Of course, they can use repeated misery as their spur. The taste of victory would be all the sweeter for it. But Toulon are trying to make history, rather than break it. A third European Cup title on the trot. To live these days is why all the players, now gnarled and more experienced than anyone playing anywhere, signed up in the first place. From Carl Heyman at prop to Bryan Habana on the wing, they know how to win.

Call them mercenaries and they would probably take it as a compliment. They are paid top dollar and they provide a service. Just like Wilkinson did. Just like him, the Toulon giants should be heading into retirement with another winner's medal in their pocket. A dream ending to their careers.


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