Toulon and Biarritz eye maiden euro title
May 17, 2012
Jonny Wilkinson looks set to be an integral figure in the final
Top 14 giants Toulon and Biarritz go head-to-head for the Amlin Challenge Cup final at the Twickenham Stoop on Friday night.
The two French sides, both chasing their first European title, have had contrasting seasons to date. While Toulon have excelled in the league and booked their place in the play-offs, Biarritz found their resources drastically depleted at the start of the season due to the World Cup with the Heineken Cup serving as an added distraction until their exit at the pool stage. At one point, Biarritz looked like they might even drop out of the Top 14 but they rallied and finished in a respectable ninth meaning winning the Challenge Cup represents their only chance of returning to the Heineken Cup next season.
But form goes out of the window when it comes to tournament finals. Toulon reached the final of the Challenge Cup back in 2010 but fell to surprise defeat on 'home' soil in Marseille at the hands of Cardiff Blues while for Biarritz, their European experience comes in the this tournament's big brother - the Heineken Cup. Twice they have reached the final of Europe's premier club competition - 2006 and 2010 - only to come away empty handed.
In an all-French semi-final line-up, Toulon edged out Stade Francais at the Stade Felix Mayol thanks to Jonny Wilkinson's late drop-goal while Biarritz eased past the now-relegated Brive at the Parc des Sports Aguilera.
Toulon - Player to Watch: All eyes will be on the recently-crowned Top 14 Player of the Year - Steffon Armitage. He is the league's form openside and although his style of rugby - that of the 'fetcher' - is arguably a dying breed in modern rugby, he has the ability to swing this final in Toulon's favour.
Toulon - Team News: Benjamin Lapeyre starts at fullback with David Smith and Alexis Palisson on the wings. Matt Giteau and Mathieu Bastareaud are in the centres with Jonny Wilkinson partnered by Sebastien Tillous-Borde at half-back. Joe van Niekerk skippers the side from No.8 with Steff Armitage and Pierrick Gunther on the flanks. Christophe Sansom and Kris Chesney are in the second-row with Eifion Lewis-Roberts, Sebastien Bruno and Carl Hayman forming the front-row.
Biarritz - Player to Watch: Iain Balshaw is playing some of the best rugby of his career at Biarritz and constantly breaks the gainline from fullback. Toulon will have to keep an eye on the former England speedster if they are to prevail.
Biarritz - Team News: Balshaw starts at fullback with USA Eagles speedster Taku Ngwenya and Dane Haylett-Petty on the wings. Jean Pascal Barraque and Damien Traille are in the centres with the mini-general Dimitri Yachvili and Julien Peyrelongue at half-back. Imanol Harinordoquy captains the side from the back of the scrum with Talalelei Guyot at openside and Wenceslas Lauret at blindside. Pelu Taele-Pavihi and Jerome Thion are in the second-row with Eugene van Staden, Arnaud Heguy and Yvan Watremez in the front-row.
Key Battle: The match could be decided at the breakdown so expect Harinordoquy and Van Niekerk to be involved in a monumental battle at No.8. Both are imperious back-rowers who will look to put their mark on the game early on.
Trivia: Jonny Wilkinson is the tournament's leading points scorer this term with 78.
Stats: Based on the OPTA Index - Eifion Roberts and Carl Hayman are both ranked in the top three players for scrummaging in the Amlin Challenge Cup.
"We will go to London to win this final - we cannot do otherwise." - Biarritz club president Serge Blanco
Prediction: It is going to be Toulon's year...just. They will continue their Top 14 good feeling with a narrow win over their French counterparts.
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