Reaching a thrilling climax
May 30, 2012
Castres were celebrating after their win over Montpellier, but will they be in the Top 14 final come June 9? © Getty Images
On this side of the Channel the nation's best players are packing off either for their summer holidays or international tours to the southern hemisphere. In France, meanwhile, the Top 14 is reaching its climax. Two semis this weekend - both at the Stadium de Toulouse - followed by the final in Paris on June 9. All three are live on ESPN.
Toulouse v Castres1945, Saturday - Live on ESPN
Big city v small town; home v away; side who've had a week off v squad bruised by a barrage tie; budget of €33million v one of less than half that; 18-times winners v haven't won it for almost two decades; household names v decent honest pros.
Whichever way you look at it, the tale of the tape points to just one possible winner, Toulouse. Yet it was the unfashionable, out-of-towners who edged Europe's biggest hitters over their two league meetings this season. Back in October, Castres won 24-3 at the Stade Pierre Antoine before leading the away fixture at the Ernest Wallon in March for 73 minutes before eventually running out 34-27 losers. The bad news for Castres is that they are likely to be without their Samoan lock Joe Tekori on Saturday who was harshly handed a straight red card in the barrage win against Montpellier while the next few days will tell us whether Friday's bruising battle claimed any other key names. It will be a special occasion for Castres's former All Black Chris Masoe who moves on to Toulon in the summer while it is, almost certainly, points machine Romain Teulet's last chance of a Top 14 final appearance.
Les deux Laurents (coaches Labit and Travers) will have their Castres squad primed for the occasion fully aware that the defending champions are vulnerable. Toulouse are not the team they once were. Verdict? Toulouse … but only just.
Clermont Auvergne v Toulon1530, Sunday - Live on ESPN
The tyre giant millions against the comic book billionaire's band of galacticos. Put another way, it's the 2010 champions, stung by their near miss in the Heineken Cup and desperate for success in their centenary season, against Toulon who have looked anything like a polished outfit in recent weeks as they first fell short in the Amlin Challenge Cup final against Biarritz and then despite being the hosts in one of the most hostile rugby environments anywhere (Stade Mayol) laboured past Racing Metro on Saturday in the barrage round.
The signs point to a Clermont victory with most of those physically damaged in defeat by Leinster a month ago - Julien Bonnaire, Julien Malzieu, Nathan Hines and Jean-Marcellin Buttin - expected to be available. Toulon will, once again, be without the suspended Carl Hayman but with the beast Davit Kubriashvili deputising at tight-head the former All Black shouldn't be missed. Jonny Wilkinson will need to rediscover his best form if Toulon are to stand any chance of avenging defeat at the same stage two years ago when the St Etienne semi went to extra-time in controversial circumstances. Prediction? Clermont … comfortably.
Finally, congratulations to Mont-de-Marsan after their 29-20 play-off victory against Pau on Sunday which, half-a-century since winning their only French championship title, guarantees them a spot alongside Pro2 winners Grenoble in next season's Top 14. It is an illustration of French professional rugby's integrity as well as its rude financial health that neither club has had to endure either the lack of ambition of Cornish Pirates or the injustice dealt out to London Welsh who despite both being in the running for the second tier title in England will not be made welcome (whichever one comes out on top after Wednesday's second leg of the play-off final) to feast at the Aviva Premiership's top table next season.
In France, when you finish in the Top 14's bottom two you know and accept you're going down. Likewise, when you win Pro2, or the subsequent play-off involving the next best four teams, it is guaranteed you shall be promoted. In England, as we're finding out, it doesn't necessarily work out that way. It's a state of affairs which makes the Premiership look like a cheap imitation of its cross-Manche rival.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
This article first appeared in The Independent on May 15, visit http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/
As Scotland decides its future, Scrum Sevens looks at a group of players who transcended rugby both for country and the British & Irish Lions
Ahead of November's USA-All Blacks match, America's ESPN Magazine explains rugby to its readers who may not be familiar with the game
Tom Hamilton talks to World Cup-winning captain John Smit about life after rugby, his fears over the South African exodus and the World Cup