Toulouse and Biarritz eye euro glory
May 21, 2010
Toulouse's Thierry Dusautoir and Biarritz's Jerome Thion pose with the Heineken Cup on the eve of their Stade de France showdown in Paris © Getty Images
Toulouse and Biarritz will go head-to-head for the Heineken Cup crown in Paris on Saturday in the third all-French final in the competition's illustrious 15-year history.
The stage is a familiar one for Toulouse who will be appearing in their sixth final and Les Rouge et Noir can boast a record three Heineken Cup titles following their victories in 1996, 2003 and most recently 2005. In contrast, Biarritz cannot compete in terms of pedigree but they are no strangers to European club rugby's showpiece event having graced the final in 2005 only to be vanquished by Munster.
Toulouse may have tasted defeat at this stage twice before but significantly they have not been beaten by another French side with only Munster and Wasps having beaten them at this stage of the competition. Biarritz will therefore be looking to go one better than Perpignan (2003) and Stade Francais (2005) and hand their rivals a painful home-grown defeat.
Back-to-back knock-out victories over Ospreys and Munster in the knock-out stages gives Biarritz reason to be confident that they can do just that and a 26-10 triumph over Toulouse at the Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastian in March will add further fuel to that fire. But Toulouse can also point to a domestic success having beaten the Basques 23-3 in their first Top 14 meeting of the season at the Stade Ernest Wallon in October and their form eventually carried them into the play-offs where they were beaten by Perpignan last weekend.
Biarritz's interest in the post-season ended some time ago having finished a disappointing seventh place at the end of the regular season and as a result they are in danger of not qualifying for next season's Heineken Cup. Only victory in Paris on Saturday or a win for Top 14 rivals Toulon in Sunday's European Challenge Cup Final will see them grace the competition next season.
With their Top 14 hopes campaign faltering it was no surprise to see Biarritz produce their best when it mattered most in this season's Heineken Cup. A comprehensive victory over Glasgow in the New Year set up a mouth-watering quarter-final clash with Ospreys where a sensational try from speedster Takudzwa Ngwenya lit up another spectacular day at the Estadio Anoeta that ended in a nail-biting victory. It was a more clinical Biarritz that battled past Munster in the semi-finals with the faultless boot of scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili and the warrior-like No.8 Imanol Harinordoquy, playing with a broken nose and rib, carrying them into their second Heineken Cup Final.
Toulouse's progress to the Stade de France has been no-less impressive with a solitary defeat to Cardiff Blues in the pool stages the only blot on their formbook. Guy Noves' side ended the hopes of Stade Francais in emphatic style in the quarter-finals with the ever-influential pair of centre Yannick Jauzion and fly-half David Skrela running the show and kicking Toulouse to victory. Skrela was again the key man as Toulouse ended Leinster's defence of the title at the Stade Municipal earlier this month in their semi-final clash.
Toulouse's enviable strength in depth has allowed Noves to rotate his options in recent weeks but his big guns will no doubt return to the fray for this game. The likes of Skrela, Jauzion, captain Thierry Dusautoir, a beaten finalist with Biarritz in 2006 and Toulouse in 2008, and scrum-half Byron Kelleher are set anchor their challenge with the power-based game of No.8 Shaun Sowerby and the flair of the likes of fullback Clement Poitrenaud and winger Vincent Clerc and Maxime Medard adding to the mix.
"I have been dreaming about this for a long time and I'm hoping this will be the game that sees me reach my goal of winning the Heineken Cup," commented Dusautoir this week, hoping it will be a case of third time lucky. "It is too late now to do anything in the French Championship, so we will be going 100 per cent to win in Paris."
Biarritz have more than their fair share of match-winners with the blazing speed of Ngwenya an obvious threat and the indomitable spirit of Harinordoquy another huge asset. However, they will once again be without centre Damien Traille who suffered a fractured forearm in the Top 14 defeat to Clermont Auvergne on April 24 and has lost his fitness battle. Australian Karmichael Hunt, who lined up at fly-half against Munster, switches to centre with Julien Peyrelongue set to fill the No.10 shirt where he will partner Yachvili.
"For the last 10 years Toulouse has been the top team in Europe. To beat them we will have to give everything we've got," said captain Jerome Thion this week, like Dusautoir, twice a beaten finalist with Perpignan in 2003 and Biarritz in 2006. "But the reason we are in the final is that we've all pulled together - winning this game is going to be like climbing Everest for us."
Both sides possess an abundance of creative and game-breaking talent in the backs but the magnitude of the occasion and the associated pressures suggest that this will be closely-fought contest dominated by a brutal forward battle. Toulouse look to have the edge up front but discipline will be the key with the likes of Skrela and Yachvili ready to pounce on any mistakes. As a result, do not be surprised if this final is dominated by the boot but this wouldn't be the Heineken Cup without a large dose of drama and a dozen twists and turns.
Biarritz: 15. Iain Balshaw, 14. Takudzwa Ngwenya, 13. Arnaud Mignardi, 12. Karmichael Hunt, 11. Jean-Baptiste Gobelet, 10. Julien Peyrelongue, 9. Dimitri Yachvili, 1. Eduard Coetzee, 2. Benoit August, 3. Campbell Johnstone, 4. Jérôme Thion, 5. Trevor Hall, 6. Magnus Lund, 7. Wenceslas Lauret, 8. Imanol Harinordoquy,
Replacements: 16. Romain Terrain, 17. Fabien Barcella, 18. Rémy Hugues, 19. Manuel Carizza, 20. Florian Faure, 21. Valentin Courrent, 22. Philippe Bidabe, 23. Ayoola Erinle,
Toulouse: 15. Clément Poitrenaud, 14. Vincent Clerc, 13. Florian Fritz, 12. Yannick Jauzion, 11. Maxime Medard, 10. David Skrela, 9. Byron Kelleher, 1. Jean-Baptiste Poux, 2. William Servat, 3. Benoit Lecouls, 4. Romain Millo-Chluski, 5. Patricio Albacete, 6. Jean Bouilhou, 7. Thierry Dusautoir, 8. Shaun Sowerby,
Replacements: 16. Alberto Vernet Basualdo, 17. Daan Human, 18. Census Johnston, 19. Yoann Maestri, 20. Louis Picamoles , 21. Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, 22. Yann David , 23. Cédric Heymans,
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: David Pearson, Chris White (England)
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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