By Kate Bamber, Rugby World reader
European Cup rugby is set to reach its climax in both the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cup this weekend.
Biarritz will face Toulouse in the Heineken Cup Final in Paris on Saturday, and Sunday will see Cardiff Blues, the only non-French finalist, do battle with Toulon in Marseille.
French teams have dominated the Heineken Cup this year, with the Irish contingent, champions Leinster and two-time winners Munster, dumped out in the semi-finals.
But why have the French dominated in 2009/10?
Along with cup rugby success, France scooped an impressive Six Nations Grand Slam this season.
Fingers have been pointed towards the cash being splashed in the French Top 14, although a salary cap is being brought in next year.
But is this the only reason for their success? French teams start their season a month before the Guinness Premiership and Magners league, and whilst GP and Celtic teams are warming up in pre-season training, they are gaining match fitness and that elusive edge.
Or is it down to the rigours of a British and Irish Lions tour last summer taking it out of the top players from the home nations before the start of this season?
Simply put, French teams could just be better. But with millions more Euros to spend on players, who wouldn’t be?
But never mind all that – we are set for some cracking finals this weekend. Here are my previews and predictions:
Biarritz v Toulouse
Three time winners Toulouse play their third all French Heineken Cup final when they face Biarritz on Saturday.
Toulouse, who play their sixth final this weekend, last won this competition in 2004/05 when they pipped Stade Francais to the prize after extra time at Murrayfield. Biarritz have only been to one final, losing 16-13 to Munster at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in the following year. The last time Toulouse has the silverware in their sights was in the 2007/08 season, falling to Munster, the Irish giants claiming the cup in a close 16-13 win.
But what of this year? At times, both these sides have played some sublime rugby, no more so than the dazzling Yannick Jauzion of Toulouse.
Centre Jauzion has caused commentators to wax lyrical about his vision and glittering playmaking. But Toulouse are by no means a one man team.
France skipper Thierry Dusautoir is back, and will be looking to add a Heineken Cup winners’ medal to his collection, after missing out with Biarritz in 2006 and Toulouse in 2008. Wing Cedric Heymans could feature in his sixth Heineken final, while four other Toulouse players – hooker William Servat, prop Jean-Baptiste Poux and flanker Jean Bouilhou – could play in their fifth, along with a certain Mr Jauzion.
Biarritz also have plenty of stars on display. Hard man Imanol Harinordoquy, who played the semi-final at number eight with a broken nose and rib injury, is expected to start. Also possibly lining up for the Basque team is a trio of England internationals – full-back Iain Balshaw, centre Ayoola Erinle and flanker Magnus Lund. However, centre Damien Traille is out with a broken arm.
Toulouse have to be the favourites ahead of this game due to their European Cup pedigree. Toulouse ended the Top 14 season in 4th, whilst rivals Biarrtiz only managed 7th place. Add to that the fact that Toulouse swatted aside rugby giants Stade Francais and champions Leinster in the knockout stages and they are looking formidable. Will they show up Biarritz’s occasionally fragile defence?
My prediction: It should be a cracker. Toulouse to win by 6.
Cardiff Blues v Toulon
Cardiff Blues are taking their bid to become the first Welsh side to win a European trophy all the way to the final at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on Sunday.
Claiming their first silverware won’t be an easy task for the Blues, as they face a star-studded Toulon, the team who finished second in the French Top 14 this season.
Of course, all eyes will be on Toulon’s Jonny Wilkinson, Felipe Contepomi, Sonny Bill Williams and Tana Umaga – but don’t write off the Blues.
The Welsh side have been boosted by the return of scrum-half Richie Rees and have done well on their travels this year.
And Cardiff might find themselves with a few more fans for the day – although they will be wearing red. If the Blues win, Wales will gain a fourth Heineken Cup place which will go to the Scarlets.
However, if Toulon triumph, Gloucester will take the 24th and final spot.
My prediction: I can’t see Cardiff out muscling Toulon in the sunny south of France. Toulon to win by 12.
But what do you think?