Clermont and Toulon target euro glory
May 17, 2013
Can Jonny Wilkinson boot Toulon to a first-ever Heineken Cup crown against Clermont Auvergne on Saturday? © Getty Images
History will be made at Dublin's Aviva Stadium on Saturday night when a new name will be etched onto the Heineken Cup silverware - but will it be Clermont Auvergne or Toulon?
Clermont, who are also bidding to become the first club in the history of the competition to win all nine matches in the same season on their way to winning the trophy, enter the clash as favourites having accounted for Montpellier and then Munster in the knock out stages. They are also chasing domestic success having booked a place in the Top 14 semi-finals but their rivals are also eyeing that notable double.
Toulon booked their first final appearance with a quarter-final victory over Leicester and then a win against Saracens in the final four but English interest extends far beyond the fortunes of the Premiership's finest. Toulon is home to a host of familiar names with none as well-known as former England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson who delivered a masterclass in the semi-finals and is set to shoulder the hopes of his side once again.
But Clermont boast a fair few potential match-winners of their own who also add to the international flavour of the fourth all-French final - with an incredible 12 nationalities represented across the two squads. Kiwi winger Sitiveni Sivivatu and similarly fleet-footed Fijian Napolioni Nalaga have provided much of the power, pace and flair that has propelled Clermont to this point and will spearhead their challenge for euro glory.
Clermont - Player to Watch: Napolioni Nalaga has been superb throughout this season and has saved his best for his side's Heineken Cup campaign. He is the top metre-maker in this season's competition, covering 667 metres from 94 carries (also a tournament high). The Clermont wing is also the top try-scorer (7) and has beaten the most defenders (26) this season.
Clermont - Team News: Clermont have made two changes to the side that saw off Munster in the semi-finals with the most notable change the return from injury of captain Aurelien Rougerie with Regan King dropping to the bench. Elsewhere, Gerhard Vosloo gets the nod at openside ahead of Julien Bardy. Lee Byrne starts at fullback with Sitiveni Sivivatu named on the wing. Wesley Fofana will partner Rougerie in midfield while Brock James starts at fly-half and will partner scrum-half Morgan Parra. Thomas Domingo and Davit Zirakashvili will pack down either side of Benjamin Kayser in the front row with Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines named as locks. Julien Bonnaire will start at fullback and Damien Chouly at No.8.
Toulon - Player to Watch: Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe was a towering presence in his side's quarter-final victory over Saracens and clearly relishes the big occasion so expect him to be central to proceedings at the Aviva Stadium.
Toulon - Team News: South African international flanker Danie Rossouw has shaken off a knee injury and will start at blindside. As a result, Toulon are unchanged from the side that started against Saracens in the semi-finals. Delon Armitage starts at fullback with Rudi Wulf and Alexis Palisson named on the wings. Mathieu Bastareaud and Matt Giteau line up in midfield while Jonny Wilkinson partners Sebastien Tillous-Borde at half-back. Sebastien Bruno starts at hooker with props Andrew Sheridan and Carl Hayman completing the front row. Nick Kennedy partners Bakkies Botha in the second row with Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Chris Masoe packing down alongside Rossouw.
Key Battle: There will be a number of mouth-watering match-ups across the Aviva Stadium pitch with the second row battle between Clermont's Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore and Toulon's Bakkies Botha and Nick Kennedy particularly intriguing. Then there is the midfield battle between Toulon's Matt Giteau and Mathieu Bastareaud and Clermont's Wesley Fofana and Aurelien Rougerie. But it is hard to look past the battle of the boot between Toulon fly-half Jonny Wilkinson and Clermont scrum-half Morgan Parra set to decide this contest.
Trivia: Four players are looking to join the Heineken Cup-Super Rugby title-winning club. Toulon's Bakkies Botha (Bulls 2007/2009), Danie Rossouw (Bulls (2007/2009/2010) and Matt Giteau (Brumbies 2004) and Clermont Auvergne's Ti-i Paulo (Crusaders 2008). Who ever achieves the feat will join existing club members Rod Kafer (Brumbies/Leicester), Doug Howlett (Blues/Munster) and Brad Thorn (Crusaders/Leinster).
Stats: Clermont have scored 12 tries in the final quarter of matches so far this season, more than any other side, and four more than their final opponents.
"You have guys like Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Chris Masoe in the Toulon line-up, and they're not exactly going to come out and start tickling you in a ruck are they?"
"We must remain calm and believe in ourselves because Clermont are an extremely strong team. In such matches, every single detail counts - starting with mental strength."
Prediction: There has been little between these two sides of late and another close encounter awaits in Dublin. Expect unprecedented intensity, bone-crunching commitment in defence, the odd flash of flair and a narrow Clermont victory.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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