Jack D'Arcy takes a look at the facts and figures ahead of this weekend's European Champions Cup final between Clermont and Toulon at Twickenham…
Whatever the final score at Twickenham on Saturday history will have been written. Either Toulon will claim an unprecented third successive European title or Clermont will lose their tag of ‘the best team not to have won it’ by taking that final step to glory. Toulon are narrow favourites with the bookies but will it be one game too far for an ageing side? Or will Clermont choke at the last again, a la 2013? We look at some of the key statistics ahead of the European Champions Cup final…
Once again nominated for European Player of the Year, Steffon Armitage’s influence at the breakdown remains tyrannical. Toulon lead the way in terms of turnovers in the Champions Cup with 78 – and almost 27% of those came from the clawing paws of Armitage. Benched for the semi-final against Leinster the back-row’s impact was immediate when he took to the field – wrestling Sean O’Brien to the ground and forcing a turnover after Jamie Heaslip and Devin Toner failed to budge the Englishman off the ball. At 5ft 9in and 16st 3lb, his squat stature and low centre of gravity means he is near enough immovable on the deck. An ‘exceptional circumstance’ perhaps?
Leigh Halfpenny‘s kicking accuracy has fallen on the tedious side of metronomic lately! The ‘other Jonny’ has slotted an amazing 87.8% of his 41 shots at goal this tournament, amassing 92 points, but has surely found a worthy adversary in the form of Brock James. The Clermont fly-half has not missed a kick from his 11 attempts off the tee while his punts and chips from hand were magnificent in gaining territory against Northampton and unlocking a resolute Saracens defence in the last round. James has battled his way to a starting berth after the promising early-season form of Camille Lopez but will hope one more noteworthy performance will be enough to erase the memory of 2013.
A TALE OF TWO FULL-BACKS
While Halfpenny’s boot may lead Toulon to their third successive European crown, his running game has lacked a certain fizz. The full-back’s last try in the competition actually came against Toulon, over two years ago, while playing for the Cardiff Blues. With ball in hand Halfpenny has made four clean breaks, beaten six defenders and gained 228 metres. The statistics are worthy but by no means comparable to the open-field carnage performed by Nick Abendanon. Also in the running for European Player of the Year, Abendanon seems to have a monopoly on swerving and gliding related adjectives. And his performances, along with those of Armitage, continue to challenge England’s protectionist selection policy.
If they do chose to kick downfield, Clermont will look to the well-oiled springs of Damien Chouly to steal opposition ball. No other player has pinched more lineouts in this year’s competition than the Frenchman (5), claiming two in his last appearance against Saracens.
The battle in the engine room will be ferocious with the wizened old pairing of Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha pitted against the gargantuan Jamie Cudmore and Sébastien Vahaamahina. However, Bernard Laporte will be concerned with his locks’ discipline after Jocelino Suta and Botha were fortunate not to join Williams in the sin-bin during the semi-final. Unfortunately for Leinster both forwards went on to make a positive contribution to proceedings. Botha was impeccable in defence, not missing a tackle, and Suta took three lineout catches, although somehow escaping disciplinary action for choking Richardt Strauss.
With larger bounties come larger amounts of mercenaries – and the Top 14 is no exception. As rugby trundles its way into the deeper realms of professionalism, the game has become an international affair. On Saturday players will come from each corner of the globe to play out the European final, but what affect will this have on the French national side? Have foreign imports dragged the French players to European finals? Or have ageing southern hemisphere stars deprived French youth of opportunity? Either way it’s likely 13 Frenchman will take to the field on Saturday – a considerable amount more than England (2), Wales (2), Scotland (0) and Ireland (0) put together.
Clermont v Toulon, Twickenham, Sat 2 May, 5pm