French giants eye Paris finale
April 9, 2010
Toulouse's Yannick Jauzion is shackled by the Stade Francais defence during their Top 14 clash in Paris last month © Getty Images
Toulouse and Stade Francais clash in an all-French Heineken Cup quarter-final at the Stade Municipal on Sunday with a place in the Stade de France season finale tantalisingly close.
The hosts boast an unrivalled record in Europe's premier domestic competition having claimed the much-prized crown on three occasions - most recently in 2005 when they ended Stade's hopes of a first win with an 18-12 victory at Murrayfield. But they also know the hurt of defeat having been on the wrong end of the result on two further occasions with Munster ending their hopes of a fourth title in 2008. Stade's only other final appearance came in 2001 with defeat at the hands of English side Leicester.
As well as holding a historical advantage over their Top 14 rivals, Toulouse have had the better of Stade on this season. The two sides battled to a 9-9 draw in their league clash at the Stade Ernst Wallon back in September but their most recent meeting last month was a much more one-sided affair with Toulouse hammering the Parisians 29-0 in a high-profile clash at the Stade de France.
Toulouse may not have set the tournament alight this season but one defeat in six pool matches - away at the Cardiff Blues - was enough for a valuable home draw. Guy Noves' side have since booked their place in the Top 14 play-offs, although a top two finish and a bye through to the semi-finals may be beyond them with defeats to Toulon and Biarritz hindering their chances. The perennial title challengers were the only French side to make it to the quarter-finals last season and their title challenge ended there at the hands of Blues. But the French have rediscovered their form this year - with a Paris finale a big incentive - and as a result Toulouse are joined by three of their Top 14 rivals in the last eight.
Stade Francais have also struggled to find their best form in Europe with a misfiring pool campaign ending with a defeat to Edinburgh. Concerns over their form have been magnified by their recent Top 14 performances with defeats to Castres, Brive and Perpignan - as well as the crushing loss to Toulouse - leaving them outside of the play-off picture. For a club of Stade's status and ambition that is quite simply not good enough but nearly all would be forgiven if they were to break their European duck.
The Paris-based side, bank-rolled by president Max Guazzini, have had to endure a rollercoaster of a season with head coach Ewen McKenzie shown the door after just five games of the season and talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse struck down with a season-ending injury in November. Current coach Jacques Delmas was then informed last month that his contract would not be renewed with Leinster's Michael Cheika set to take over in the summer. Amidst the coaching merry-go-round there was also the club v country row with England over the services of flanker James Haskell and a couple of hefty eye-gouging suspensions for David Attoub and Julien Dupuy.
Victory in Toulouse would bring them a dream home semi-final against Leinster or Clermont most likely at their second home - the same Stade de France that would also play host to the tournament finale. But if they are to keep that dream alive - and their best hope of returning to the competition next season considering their league plight - then they need to raise their game significantly.
In the continued absence of Jean Baptiste Elissalde, who is battling back from injury, David Skrela is once again handed the No.10 shirt against his former club and is partnered by the experienced Byron Kelleher. Centre Yann David misses out with an ankle injury but lock Romain Millo-Chluski returns to the team for the first time in almost a month after a thigh injury. Winger Cedric Heymans has also shaken off an ankle injury that forced him out of the Top 14 clash with Racing Metro last weekend but there is no place for new signing Vilimoni Delasau who is not registered for the competition.
Stade have also been handed a timely boost with lock Pascal Pape returning after a lengthy spell on the sidelines and the ever-influential Juan Manuel Leguizamon is also back in the starting line-up. The in-form Lionel Beauxis is set to orchestrate proceedings once again from fly-half after steering the side to a morale-boosting victory over Clermont last time out. Scot Hugo Southwell and Englishman Tom Palmer are also slated to start but there is no place for James Haskell - fit but not selected for Stade's biggest game of the season. Australian Mark Gasnier forms a mouth-watering centre pairing with French international Mathieu Bastareaud.
The formbook suggests Toulouse are favourites to progress to the final four but charged with rescuing their season from the mire, Stade Francais are unlikely to leave anything in reserve. As a result expect some fireworks and a classic Heineken Cup encounter.
Toulouse: C Poitrenaud; V Clerc, F Fritz, Y Jauzion, C Heymans; D Skrela, B Kelleher; B Lecouls, W Servat, JB Poux, W Servat, W Servat, B Lecouls, R Millo-Chluski, P Albacete, J Bouilhou, T Dusautoir (capt), L Picamoles
Replacements: V Lacombe, D Human, C Johnston, S Sowerby, Y Maestri, N Bezy, M Medard, G Lamboley
Stade Français: H Southwell; J Arias, M Bastareaud, M Gasnier, M Bergamasco; L Beauxis, N Oelschig; R Roncero (capt), D Szarzewski, S Marconnet, T Palmer, P Pape, A Burban, P Rabadan, J Leguizamon
Replacements: B Kayser, R Slimani, R Gerber, A Marchois, S Taylor, B Tardy, I Mieres, G Messina
Referee: Alan Lewis (Ire)
Firdose Moonda talks to Rob Louw about the difficulties of being a South African touring New Zealand at the height of Apartheid
Huw Richards profiles French forward Walter Spanghero, a man who even rugby's hard men thought was a tough nut
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games