And so… the almost entirely unpredictable Top 14 season is one match away from the end. After 186 matches, the destiny of the Brennus rests on the outcome of a second consecutive final between Toulon and Castres.
Last week, while Castres rested, Toulon beat Saracens in the last Heineken Cup final. His Supreme Majesty Lord Sir Jonny of Wilkinson, in his penultimate outing as a player, lifted the trophy as the Var side became only the third team, after Leicester and Leinster, in the too-brief Heineken Cup history to win back-to-back titles.
Even as the confetti settled over the Millennium Stadium pitch, however, you can bet Wilkinson’s mind was beginning to mull over one last challenge – winning the Top 14 title this week.
Zealous? Probably. Speculation? Naturally. But that’s the image Wilkinson has cultivated over the years – a robotic metronome, always preparing for the next challenge – which, after Saturday, will be a role on the staff at Stade Mayol. It’s an image that belies his true genius, even if it is one that a rapidly decreasing circle of people actually believe.
Coming into the final, all talk in France should have been about Wilkinson’s last game, but Mourad Boudjellal diverted attention with mystic pronouncements about club signings in 2015. He hinted that four stellar names would join the club the season after next, which promptly sent the French rugby media into an off-target feeding frenzy. They quickly came up with names like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter – and the speculation mounted.
Over at the training ground, meanwhile, the players quietly got on with the job in hand – getting ready for one last big match.
This match offers Toulon the chance to complete a little unfinished business. They were here last year, huge favourites to do the double against plucky little Castres, who had fought their way to the final – beating first Montpellier, then Clermont in the post-season play-offs. But a Rory Kockott-inspired CO had other ideas. They won 19-14 to take the Brennus back to the Tarn on an astonishing night in Paris.
A wrong, as far as Toulon are concerned, needs righting. Maybe they’re right. It was a genuinely surprising result. Only Castres’ fans had dared to dream. But a tired Toulon were simply outmuscled last year.
Examining the two sides’ make-up, it’s clear they couldn’t be more different.
Toulon, with its €33million annual budget, has signed some of the biggest names on the planet over the past six years – including Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Bakkies Botha and Bryan Habana – and have reaped the benefits, reaching six finals in the past three years. Castres, meanwhile, with its relatively modest €16million annual budget – the ninth highest in the Top 14 – have sought out hidden talent and developed it. They signed Brice Dulin from Agen and turned him into the French fullback, and Antonie Claassen from Brive, and made him a French international too. Even Rory Kockott first arrived as a medical joker.
On paper, then, the two sides couldn’t be more different. But rugby isn’t played on paper. It’s played on a pitch. With players and tactics and pride and passion.
Undoubtedly, both teams have all of the above by the bucketload. Toulon finished the season at the top of the table, and made light work of Racing Metro in the Top 14 semi-final before making lighter work of Saracens last week in the Heineken Cup final. But Castres, first ended Clermont’s winning streak at Stade Marcel Michelin, then edged Montpellier in the last four to ensure they took the defence of their title all the way to the final.
Looking at the stats, Toulon really should win. They have the players. They have the power. They have the skills. And they have Jonny Wilkinson. You can be sure that not one Toulon player wants to be a member of the side that loses his last ever match.
Only, this Top 14 season has proved that, when it comes down to it, stats aren’t always worth the paper they’re written on.
No one – except die-hard Castres fans – expects Castres to win the Brennus again. But, then, no one – except die-hard Castres fans – expected them to win it last year, either.
SuperBru Prediction: Toulon by 10
By James Harrington (@blackmountained)