By Gavin Mortimer, Rugby World writer
IT’S AN all-French affair in Friday’s Amlin Challenge Cup final at the Stoop as Toulon take on Biarritz. Did we say ‘all-French’ affair? That’s a bit like saying Arsenal against Chelsea is an all-English affair. Both clubs reflect the cosmopolitan nature of the Top 14 with Biarritz boasting the likes of England World Cup winner Iain Balshaw and American flier Takudzwa Ngwenya, while Toulon have more stars than the Milky Way with Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Joe Van Nierkirk to name but three. Neither club has ever won a European trophy with Toulon losing to Cardiff in the 2010 Amlin Final, while the same season Biarritz went down to Toulouse in the climax to the Heineken Cup.
Both clubs go into the final with almost a good bill of health. Biarritz welcome back inspirational captain and No8 Imanol Harinordoquy, as well as second row Jerome Thion, although they will be without international centre Benoit Baby, out with a broken hand. Toulon are without Springbok hardman Bakkies Botha in the second row, who is cup-tied, but otherwise they have sent their strongest side to the Stoop. Wilkinson will have Sebastien Tillous-Borde as his scrum-half, giving Toulon an edge in this area, but the biggest confrontation will be in the back-row. Toulon have England discard Steffon Armitage in the form of his life (this week he was voted Player of the Season by influential French rugby paper Midi Olympique), while in Joe van Niekerk they have one of the greats of the modern game. But he’s still not as great as Harinordoquy.
Last chance saloon
Toulon have enjoyed one of their most impressive Top 14 seasons in years. Having finished third, they now host Racing Metro in the play-off to see who progresses to the semi-final against either Toulouse or Clermont. But whatever the outcome, the Mediterranean club are assured of Heineken Cup rugby next season. Not so Biarritz who, though they recovered from a horrendous start to the season, failed to qualify for Europe’s premier competition next season for the first time since 1999. So unless they win at the Stoop one of the powerhouses of French rugby will find themselves playing the likes of Padova and the Bucharest Wolves next season.
In Wilkinson and Dimitri Yachvili we have the Top 14’s two most prolific points scorers on show. Wilkinson has scored 243 points for Toulon, at an average of 13.5 points a match, second only to the Yachvili who – since coming back from a lengthy injury lay-off – has knocked over 153 points at an average of 13.9. Wilko has been a bit wayward of late but Toulon coach Bernard Laporte predicts his man will end the season with a bang.
Biarritz have the pedigree, having contested two Heineken Cup finals in recent years, but Toulon have the form going into the final. They finished third in the Top 14, 21 points ahead of their Basque rivals who only managed eighth, and they will be too strong and structured for Biarritz at the Stoop. Toulon by ten.
BIARRITZ v TOULON, THE STOOP, FRIDAY 18 MAY, 8pm, Live on Sky Sports
TOULON: 15. Benjamin Lapeyre, 14. Alex Palisson, 13. Mathieu Bastareaud, 12. Matt Giteau, 11. David Smith, 10. Jonny Wilkinson, 9. Sebastien Tillous-Roberts, 1. Eifion Lewis-Roberts, 2. Sebastien Bruno, 3. Carl Hayman, 4. Christophe Samson, 5. Kris Chesney, 6. Pierrick Gunther, 7. Steffon Armitage, 8. Joe van Niekerk (C)
Replacements: 16. Jean-Charles Orioli, 17. Laurent Emmanuelli, 18. Davit Kubriashvili, 19. Joe El Abd, 20. Geoffroy Messina, 22. Fabien Cibray, 23, Jocelino Suta
BIARRITZ: 15. Iain Balshaw, 14. Taku Ngwenya, 13. Jean-Pascal Barraque, 12. Damien Traille, 11. Dane Haylett-Petty, 10 Julien Peyrelongue, 9. Dimitri Yachvili, 1. Yvan Watremez, 2. Arnaud Heguy, 3. Eugene Van Staden, 4. Jerome Thion, 5. Pelu Taele, 6. Wenceslas Lauret, 7. Benoit Guyot, 8. Imanol Harinoroquy (C)
Replacements: 16. Benoit August, 17. Sylvain Marconnet, 18. Francisco Gomez Kodela, 19. Erik Lund, 20. Talalelei Gray, 21. Marcelo Bosch, 22. Charles Gimenez, 23. Ilikena Bolakoro