Toulon tackle Blues for Challenge Cup crown
May 21, 2010
Fly-half Jonny Wilkinson will be looking to steer Toulon to European Challenge Cup glory in Marseille © Getty Images
Toulon and Cardiff Blues will go head-to-head at in Marseille on Sunday in the final of this season's European Challenge Cup.
Big spending Toulon enter the clash as favourites thanks largely to the kind scheduling that has handed them a virtual home draw. The 60,000 capacity Stade Velodrome is just 30 miles from Toulon and has already played host to Le Toulonnais on more than one occasion this season and most notably was the setting for their Top 14 victory over Heineken Cup finalists Toulouse.
That familiarity with the venue and the guaranteed fervent support is sure to weigh heavily in Toulon's favour as they seek their first piece of silverware since powering to the ProD2 title in 2007-08 to reclaim their place in French rugby's top flight. The Blues, looking to become the first Welsh side to lift a European trophy, have also tasted success in recent years with their rout of Gloucester in the 2008-09 Anglo-Welsh Cup Final still fresh in the memory but it is no stretch to suggest that this game represents a major opportunity for two sides desperate to establish themselves amongst Europe's heavyweights.
Inspired by another raft of big-name signings, including England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon have caught the eye throughout this season both on the domestic stage and in Europe. But they saw their hopes of Top 14 glory ended by Clermont Auvergne last weekend leaving Sunday's final their only chance to secure owner Mourad Boudjellal a tangible return for his significant investment in the club.
Toulon delivered a statement of intent in the pool stages to end the euro hopes of in-form Saracens who have since booked a place in this season's Guinness Premiership Final. Wilkinson then kicked the Scarlets out of the competition with a clinical display at the Stade Felix Mayol in their quarter-final clash. Philippe Saint-Andre's side then showed they had plenty of backbone by going to the Sportsground in Galway and beating a determined Connacht side in the final four.
The Blues entered the Challenge Cup fray as part of a re-vamp of this season's European competitions that saw the Heineken Cup provide three quarter-finalists for the second tier tournament. The Blues were the only one of those sides to capitalise on this opportunity - with Gloucester and Scarlets succumbing at the first hurdle - and they did so in emphatic fashion by sweeping Newcastle aside before notching a more impressive victory against Wasps in their semi-final meeting at Adams Park. As a result they became the first Welsh side to progress to a European final since the dawn of the regional set-up in 2003.
Beaten semi-finalists in last season's Heineken Cup, the Blues were struggling to live up to those standards - except for a pool stage victory over eventual finalists Toulouse - but they breathed life into their campaign in the new year with 12 wins in 14 games in all competitions. Knocked out in the semi-finals of the Anglo-Welsh Cup they also came up short in the Magners League leaving Sunday's game as their last shot at redemption. But unbeaten on the road since the beginning of January, Dai Young's side have reason to feel confident ahead of what they have billed as "the biggest game since the region was born."
"We have shown we have the mettle and determination to go to tough places and get a result, and it won't get much more difficult than this weekend," Young said this week. "We won't have to worry too much about the 50,000 in the stand but the 15 on the pitch will be tough enough. Toulon are one of France's top teams who have very few weaknesses and few unrecognisable players. But we do think there are one or two areas we can expose and we're looking forward to the game."
No.8 Xavier Rush is set to marshall the Blues' challenge in what will be his last appearance for the region ahead of a move to Ulster next season. The former All Blacks star was in imperious form during the victory over Wasps and will be pivotal to the Blues' hopes of upsetting the odds. Young has also been boosted by the return of Richie Rees with the scrum-half having shaken off an ankle injury and Tonga prop Taufa'au Filise is also back in the mix after recovering from a groin injury. The Blues also not short of big game players with the likes of prop Gethin Jenkins, centre Jamie Roberts and veteran flanker Martyn Williams but fellow Wales international Andy Powell is set to miss out due to a torn calf muscle, while Tom James, Gareth Cooper, Robin Sowden-Taylor, Gary Powell and Tom Shanklin are also all injured.
As he has done for most of the season, Wilkinson will spearhead the Toulon attack as he bids to end his first season on the continent on a high note. The former Newcastle No.10 is determined to see his side bounce back from their Top 14 disappointment but is taking nothing for granted. "It is an exciting prospect. Cardiff are a fabulous team. We have had a tough journey. So have they. Now it is a one off-game, all the work comes down to one game and the bounce of a ball or two. We have to take forward the passion and motivation of coming so close [in the Top 14] and let it drive the hunger for this weekend."
Saint-Andre's men suffered a blow on the eve of the game with fullback Luke Rooney ruled out of the game having suffered a fractured collarbone in last weekend's defeat to Clermont. Winger Olivier Missoup is also out after suffering an ankle injury in the same game but No.8 Juan-Martin Fernandez Lobbe, flanker Joe van Niekerk, winger Gabiriele Lovobalavu and veteran Tana Umaga are all set to provide a steadying hand. Kiwi Sonny Bill Williams is also in line for a start having impressed off the bench last time out.
The odds appear stacked significantly in Toulon's favour although the prospect of a punishing 80 minutes, or more, under the Mediterranean sun just a week after their epic Top 14 exit may hand the Blues' some breathing room. The visitors also have battling qualities in abundance and know how to win big games on the road while Rush's showdown with Fernandez-Lobbe is surely worth the ticket price alone. Much will depend on the Blues' ability to limit Wilkinson's influence with boot and ball and they will be under pressure to silence the 'home' crowd from the opening whistle but if they can a famous triumph could be theirs for the taking.
There will be two other sides keeping a close eye on proceedings in Marseille hoping to benefit in the form of a place in next season's Heineken Cup. Should the Blues win then Wales will gain a fourth place in Europe's premier event next season which would see the Scarlets qualify through the back door after a disappointing Magners League season. But if Toulon take the title, then English side Gloucester will get the nod due to the France's maximum entry and their own euro ranking.
Toulon: C Marienval; G Lovobalavu, T May, S Williams, J Sinzelle; J Wilkinson, M Henjak [capt]; S Taumoepeau, P Fitzgerald, D Kubriashvili, E Lozada, R Skeate, J van Niekerk, J Fernandez Lobbe, F Auelua
Replacements: S Bruno, L Emmanuelli, T Ryan, J Suta, O Sourice, M Kefu, P Mignoni, T Umaga
Cardiff Blues: B Blair; L Halfpenny, C Laulala, J Roberts, C Czekaj; C Sweeney, R Rees; G Jenkins [capt], T Thomas, F Filise, B Davies, D Jones, M Molitika, M Williams, X Rush
Replacements: G Williams, J Yapp, S Andrews, P Tito, S Warburton, D Allinson, D Flanagan, D Hewitt
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant referees: Alan Lewis, George Clancy (Ireland)
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
The Heineken Cup proved once again just why it is the best domestic rugby competition in the world at the weekend and Monday Maul picks out some of the key talking points
The latest Week in Pictures brings you a selection of the best snaps from around the rugby world with scantily clad ladies, O'Driscoll and snow all featuring
"If I miss the first kick of the match, it shouldn't have any impact on the second. They are different entities." Tom Hamilton talks to Northampton Saints' Stephen Myler
It's time for those running Welsh rugby to stop trying to prevent its players heading to France and to start planning a future without them, writes Martin Williamson