Wednesday 17 July 2019

Toulon turn on the power to secure historic treble

Clermont 18-24 Toulon

Mathieu Bastareaud congratulates Drew Mitchell for scoring the try that effectively won the Champions Cup for Toulon
Mathieu Bastareaud congratulates Drew Mitchell for scoring the try that effectively won the Champions Cup for Toulon

Eddie Butler

It was all-French and very much all Toulon, winners of the new Champions Cup and champions of Europe for the third season in succession. Clermont pushed them all the way, refusing to crumble according to their fragile history in finals. It was a little classic, a slow-burner, but a gem for all that.

And it had a crowd of 56,622 to appreciate it. It was not the grand occasion of the year at Twickenham but it had its place all right and who can say that the French won't be back here later in the year? It also contained two very special tries, one by Drew Mitchell, eligible for Australia at the World Cup, and one by Nick Abendanon, who for the moment remains in the England wilderness.

The little test within the greater final was about who would take to Twickenham, noisy enough without quite being the Stade Velodrome in Marseille or the Stade Geoffroy Guichard in Saint-Etienne. It seemed Abendanon was enjoying being back on home turf, sending a sweet one-handed pass to Napolioni Nalaga in Clermont's opening sweep of the ball to their wing. Nalaga ran clear, but confronted by Bryan Habana, the Fijian opted for something from the bulldozer school of sidestepping and lost the ball in the collision. It was going to be that sort of day.

In this game of suffocation Clermont were more at ease, controlling the ball well enough and letting Camille Lopez, playing instead of Brock James who injured himself in the warm-up, kick the ball high. Or between the posts as Clermont took advantage of the two penalty chances that came their way.

Toulon in contrast, looked less than their normal selves. Sebastien Tillous-Borde, hounded by Morgan Parra, had difficulty moving the ball clear of the breakdown areas. Whether Parra was behind the rearmost foot of the ruck when he charged a kick by his opposite number was debatable - as in, he wasn't - but it had been clear that such a block was coming. Wesley Fofana seized the bouncing ball and sprinted away from Chris Masoe for the opening try.

Far from settling Clermont deeper into their groove, the try seemed to trigger a breakdown in discipline at the tackle and seemed to expose them to pressure at the scrummage. Suddenly Toulon were on the move and Leigh Halfpenny was narrowing the gap on the scoreboard. The only surprise came when he missed with his fourth attempt and the score remained at 11-9.

He did not have to worry about not putting his team into the lead for long. As the game went into over-time at the end of the first half, Masoe set off on a charge that was continued by Mitchell, ever on the look-out to keep the ball alive. Matt Giteau did the same, feeding Mathieu Bastareaud, who finished with a dash and a thud.

In this awakening of the two-times champions, Steffon Armitage had been stirring too. At the start of the second half he fully arrived, taking a little pass out of contact by Ali Williams, who was full of such tricks, and bowling Abendanon over. The full-back did well to recover and haul the wing-forward down but a point had been made.

Now it was Clermont who looked ill at ease. Noa Nakaitaci fumbled a ball into touch and, under pressure from Habana, threw it way and Halfpenny landed his fourth penalty. A dozen minutes had passed without Clermont stringing any sort of passes together. When they did, they were penalised again. They made their changes, taking off the previously injured, like Fritz Lee, or the simply out of touch, like Nalaga. It made little difference.

Just when it seemed Clermont were going nowhere fast, they struck back with a little moment of wonder from Abendanon. He had been put on his rear, he had made a miscalculation with a clearance but now he received a kick, summed up who was where in a flash, and dinked the ball into empty space, chased it and scored. Lopez converted from and the final was alive again.

Jamie Cudmore, the veteran Canadian enforcer of Clermont, had been off twice for treatment; now he came back on for one last smash. It is the way he plays. No sooner had he taken his place in the second row for the last time than Mitchell was on the charge in much more elegant fashion. The wing took a short flat pass for Tillous-Borde and beat three defenders - Abendanon, the last - to score a stunning solo try.

Halfpenny missed the conversion, meaning that a converted try by Clermont could yet win the game. With eight minutes remaining, they had to take risks but a pass from Abendanon went straight to the master of the intercept, Bryan Habana. It should have been good night but the wing did not seem to go straight into overdrive and he ran into trouble. The game lived on.

Mike Delany made a fine run - and then another in the same movement. And then another. Abendanon made a break, only to run out of supporters. A final kick by Lopez, aimed at Delany, was picked off by Habana. A mark was made. A mark had been made by the French at Twickenham. They rule Europe. Will they be back in October as rulers of the world?

Scorers - Toulon: Bastareaud, Mitchell tries, Halfpenny 4 pens, con; Clermont: Fofana, Abendanon tries, Lopez 2 pens, con.

Toulon: Halfpenny, Mitchell, Bastareaud, J Hernandez, Habana, Giteau, Tillous-Borde, Chiocci, Guirado, Hayman, Botha, Williams, J Smith, S Armitage, Masoe. Reps: Wulf for Hernandez (66), Menini for Chiocci (48), Orioli for Guirado (63), Chilachava for Hayman (63), Taofifenua for Botha (47), Fernandez Lobbe for J Smith (58).

Clermont: Abendanon, Nakaitaci, Davies, Fofana, Nalaga, Lopez, Parra, Debaty, Kayser, Zirakashvili, Cudmore, Vahaamahina, Bonnaire, Chouly, Lee. Reps: Delany for Nakaitaci (67), Rougerie for Nalaga (54), Radosavljevic for Parra (56), Domingo for Debaty (47), Ulugia for Kayser (63), Ric for Zirakashvili (66), Pierre for Vahaamahina (67), Bardy for Lee (54).

Referee: N Owens (Wal)

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