By Gavin Mortimer
THE FRENCH domestic season reaches its climax on Saturday evening as Toulon take on Toulouse in front of a full house at the Stade de France. Reigning champions Toulouse are seeking their 19th league title while their opponents are appearing in their first final since beating Biarritz in 1992. Despite the discrepancy in recent honours, Toulon are quietly confident that they can win their fourth crown. Led by the charismatic former Springbok Joe van Niekerk and boasting a trio of international legends in Johnny Wilkinson, Bakkies Botha and Matt Giteau, Toulon have a formidable arsenal at their disposal. But so do Toulouse, even if their arsenal has a more French feel to it. Thierry Dusautoir, Clement Poitrenaud, Vincent Clerc, Florian Fritz and William Servat have all been mainstays of the France XV in the past few years. So who will be triumph on Saturdaysoir: Toulouse’s Gallic stars or Toulon’s global Galácticos? We highlight some of the key areas:
Back row battle
Steffon Armitage has been the player of Toulon’s season and the English openside’s head to head with Thierry Dusautoir will be fascinating. The French captain has been given the summer off by national coach Philippe Saint-Andre so this will be his last hurrah for a few months. Similar in build, and style, their battle at the breakdown will prove crucial in deciding which backline receives most possession.
Jonny Wilkinson put his poor run of form behind him in the semi-final defeat of Clermont, landing five goals in atrocious conditions as Toulon edged out the men in yellow 15-12. The former England fly-half is off to Corsica on Monday on a charity mountain climb (along with teammates Carl Hayman, Simon Shaw and Steffon Armitage) and Wilko will want to scale the Top 14 summit on Saturday by kicking Toulon to victory at the Stade de France. He’ll be up against Luke McAlister, the ex-All Black who kicked 18 of Toulouse’s 24 points in their semi-final win against Castres.
Clash of the coaches
The final brings together France’s two most influential coaches of their generation – Guy Noves of Toulouse and Toulon’s Bernard Laporte. The former, who played on the wing when Toulouse beat Toulon in the 1985 Top 14 Final, is aiming for his 12th league title since taking charge of Toulouse in 1993. Laporte guided Stade Francais to glory in 1998 before becoming coach of Les Bleus in 1999. Both men are driven, determined and very astute, but which brain will be sharper on Saturday?
Toulouse have plenty of experience of Top 14 finals, but Toulon have a team of hardened internationals well used to showpiece occasions and there’s a feeling the force is with the Mediterranean men following their defeat of Clermont last week. Toulon by four.
Toulouse: 15 Clement Poitrenaud. 14 Vincent Clerc, 13 Luke Mcalister , 12 Florian Fritz, 11 Yves Donguy, 10 Lionel Beauxis, 9 Jean marc Doussain, 8 Louis Picamoles, 7 Thierry Dusautoir, 6 Jean Bouilhou, 5 Patricio Albacete, 4 Yoann Maestri, 3 Census Johnston, 2 William Servat, 1 Jean Batiste Poux.
Replacements:16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Gurthro Steenkamp, 18 Romain Millo chlusky , 19 Gregory Lamboley, 20 Luke Burgess, 21 Yannick Jauzion, 22 Timoci Matanavou, 23 Yohan Montes.
Toulon: 15 Benjamin Lapeyre, 14 Alexis Palisson, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matthew Giteau, 11 David Smith, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Sebastien Tillous Borde, 8 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Joe Van Niekerk, 5 Simon Shaw, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Davit Kubriashvili, 2 Sebastien Bruno, 1 Eifion Thomas Lewis Roberts.
Replacements: 16 Mickael Ivaldi, 17 Laurent Emmanuelli, 18 Christophe Samson, 19 Pierrick Gunther, 20 Geoffroy Messina, 21 Luke Rooney, 22 Fabien Cibray, 23 Levan Chilachava.
TOULOUSE v TOULON, STADE DE FRANCE, SATURDAY 9 JUNE, 5pm, Live on ESPN