Toulon gunning for first title in 20 years against Toulouse
Millions of euros later, Mourad Boudjellal stands on the precipice of completing his goal. Toulon’s wealthy backer has gradually transformed the club from Pro D2 also rans to serious title contenders. Stars have come and gone with varying degrees of success – Jonny Wilkinson a hit, Gavin Henson less so – but you get the impression that if Toulon can defeat Toulouse on Saturday in Paris then every penny will have been worth it.
After the agony of losing a dismal Amlin Challenge Cup Final a few weeks ago, Toulon regrouped and just about squeezed past Clermont in the semi-final of the Top 14 thanks to the boots of Wilkinson and his partner in crime Matt Giteau. Their performances at times this season have been phenomenal – their quarter-final success over Harlequins in the ACC a fine example – but often it has come down to Wilkinson’s trusty left peg to see them home.
When you consider the players they have at their disposal, it should be no surprise Toulon are seriously competing for honours. Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha, Simon Shaw, Steffon Armitage, Joe Van Niekerk, Mathieu Bastareaud and Alexis Palisson are just some of the names in the squad – a reflection not only of their spending power but of the calibre of players than want to be involved in Boudjellal’s fantasy rugby. Falling short of the Top 14 Final last season was a disappointment, hence the decision to spend bigger and better. When you consider who is joining the club this summer – Gethin Jenkins, Andrew Sheridan, Frédéric Michalak and Chris Masoe – the juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down.
The only problem is that standing in their way are Toulouse. A side that lives for finals such as these, the quality of their squad over the years has never waned. They have comfortably led in 1st place of the Top 14 since Round 10, meaning that their place in the final is thoroughly deserved despite a narrow victory over Castres in the semi-finals. Thierry Dusautoir will not travel to Argentina with France this summer so this represents the final game of a long season for the Toulouse captain. The performances from the IRB Player of the Year over the last 12 months have been truly excellent and he will be hungry for another winners medal.
People often forget that Toulouse operate with twice the budget of their fellow finalists, but the evidence is there amongst their backs. Luke McAlister’s debut season has been a mixed bag but he has the ability to clinch games such as these. Timoci Matanavou’s 10 tries this season mark him out as the main threat, but frankly when you possess Clement Poitrenaud and Vincent Clerc not to mention Yoann Maestri and Louis Picamoles, you are going to cause problems for defences.
A return to the champions podium would in a way be a negative for rugby fans everywhere regarding the growing sway of cash in today’s game, but the fact is Toulon were a title winning side before they were rejuvenated from rock bottom. By winning tomorrow, they would seal a remarkable recovery. Defeat a team with the grace and enormous trophy cabinet such as Toulouse, and frankly you deserve to win the Bouclier de Brennus.
by Ben Coles