It is tough to argue with the make-up of this year’s final. Debates about salary caps and their fairness aside, Toulon and Clermont Auvergne have been the standout teams in this year’s tournament by some distance. Clermont in particular have shown themselves to be a cut above the rest, unbeaten as they are in this competition. Their win at defending champions Leinster in the group stages sent out a warning to every other club that this could be their year. Toulon have beaten the top two teams in England in the knock-out rounds and in Jonny Wilkinson have probably the best controller of a game in the hemisphere. He can kick a bit, too. Both duels between them this season have been tremendously close games, with one draw and a Clermont win by three.
Top of the Top 14, unbeaten in the Heineken Cup; it is difficult to see them not winning at least one piece of silverware this season, and with the brand of rugby they play it is unlikely many fans would begrudge them a rare double.
Their squad teems with quality, and the potentially key difference between them and Toulon is that the majority of them have played together for the past few years. The Parra/James axis at half-back is one of the best in the hemisphere, while Fofana and Rougérie are devastating in the centres. Out wide ERC player of the year nominee Sitiveni Sivivatu has shown the kind of form that once made him the golden boy of New Zealand rugby, and Lee Byrne at fullback is another to be reliving some of his glory days.
Up front, Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore will need all of their doggedness to tackle the likes of Bakkies Botha and Danie Rossouw in the Toulon pack – what a physical confrontation that will be. Thomas Domingo, Ben Kayser and Davit Zirakashvili are a compact and powerful unit – the front row will provide another bruising battle. And then in the back row there is the ever present Julien Bonnaire, who just seems to keep going and going.
Team: 15. Lee Byrne, 14. Sitiveni Sivivatu, 13. Aurélien Rougerie, 12. Wesley Fofana, 11. Napolioni Nalaga, 10. Brock James, 9. Morgan Parra, 1. Thomas Domingo, 2. Benjamin Kayser, 3. Davit Zirakashvili, 4. Jamie Cudmore, 5. Nathan Hines, 6. Julien Bonnaire, 7. Gerhard Vosloo, 8. Damien Chouly,
Replacements: 16. Ti’i Paulo, 17. Vincent Debaty, 18. Clément Ric, 19. Julien Pierre, 20. Julien Bardy, 21. Ludovic Radoslavjevic , 22. David Skrela, 23. Regan King
Key player: Aurélien Rougerie
The man inside him may the one who dominates the headlines for the coming years, but Rougerie has consistently been one of the best players in France for the last decade. His loss of a yard of pace has arguably been a blessing in disguise, allowing him to move into the centres where he has excelled. He is still no slouch in the speed stakes, and allied with his 6″4′, 16 and a half stone frame he is more than a handful.
It is easy to be hyperbolic about this Toulon squad, but it must surely be one of the best assembled. Their bench features three French internationals, a soon-to-be three time Lions tourist, a South African legend and a Georgian wrecking-ball of a prop.
Again, it is tough to pick a weak link in their team. Sébastien Bruno, at 38 years old, would become the oldest person to win a Heineken Cup, taking over from Brad Thorn, and is perhaps the closest they come to a weakness. His experience in the front row, alongside fellow gnarled warriors Carl Heyman and Andrew Sheridan, will be vital however. Heyman, up against the (relatively) diminutive Thomas Domingo – widely regarded as one of the best scrummagers in the game – will need to be right on his game.
In the back-row Steffon Armitage and Joe van Niekerk have to settle for bench spots, as the duo of Chris Masoe and Danie Roussouw join outstanding Argentinian Juan Martín Fernandez Lobbe. Along with Bakkies Botha in the engine room, there is some serious ball-carrying ballast in that pack.
The backs see canny if unspectacular scrum-half Sébastien Tillous-Borde team up with Jonny Wilkinson to form a half-back partnership that will keep Toulon in the right areas of the pitch. Outside them the mercurial Matt Giteau can cause havoc, but will also have to be at his best in defence to shackle Fofana. That duel is one to savour. Outside him everyone knows Bastareaud’s sizeable talents, while Rudi Wulf and Alexis Palisson are small but devilishly dangerous.
Team: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Rudi Wulf, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Alexis Palisson, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Juan Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Danie Rossouw, 5 Nick Kennedy, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Sebastien Bruno, 1 Andrew Sheridan.
Replacements:16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Gethin Jenkins, 18 Davit Kubriashvili, 19 Joe van Niekerk, 20 Steffon Armitage, 21 Maxime Mermoz, 22 Frederic Michalak, 23 Jocelino Suta.
Player to watch: Delon Armitage
Armitage has everything a modern fullback needs – pace, power, a booming boot and a strong ability to take the high ball. Perhaps if his attitude had been better off the pitch he might have racked up 50-odd caps for England by now. That won’t bother him though as, like many other rugby expats (including his brother), he has thrived in the Toulon environment and is playing the best rugby of his life.
Whoever wins – and both teams would be worthy – there will be a new name etched onto the Heineken Cup trophy come Saturday evening. Clermont have threatened to do it for the past few seasons, and if they can get past great Top 14 rivals Toulon then they would be easily the most deserved winners. Their opponents’ expensively assembled squad has easily enough quality to win, but the fact that this Clermont team have been together for several seasons now will give them the togetherness to finally lift the Heineken Cup trophy. Clermont by 7.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43