By Brendan Cole
Clermont have been everyone’s favourite to win the Heineken Cup since doing the double over Leinster in the pool, but Toulon’s collection of aging superstars may just have an upset in them.
Leinster victory in last night’s Amlin Challenge Cup franked just how good Clermont’s results against them were, and they are undoubtedly a top-quality outfit at their best.
But Munster’s performance in the semi-final exposed weaknesses and suggested that while they can be brilliant, Clermont can find it difficult to sustain their top level across an entire match and their lack of a true top-class number ten can also make them vulnerable.
In Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon have a ten who is capable of subtly shifting the momentum and steering them through rocky patches. Brock James, who starts for Clermont today, has not always been able to do that.
The rest of the Toulon selection indicates that they intend to take this game to Clermont in the pack. Danie Roussouw, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Chris Masoe are in the starting back-row with Steffon Armitage benched. Masoe’s comments earlier this week effectively stated as much.
Despite the presence of the likes of Matt Giteau and Matthieu Bastareaud out in the centres, the tight five led by Carl Hayman and Bakkies Botha will be given every opportunity to inflict maximum damage.
Can Clermont survive a battle up front? Their tight five has a fearsome reputation of its own and even if Toulon do get among them the likes of Wesley Fofana, Napolioni Nalaga and Sitiveni Sivivatu still represent a huge danger.
But Munster showed that while it can seem irresistible, Clermont find their best rugby hard to sustain for long periods. If Toulon can manage those purple patches, they must have an excellent chance.
The danger is that Toulon could lack the sheer desire of Munster or the complex game plan of Leinster, and are vulnerable to dropping the tempo in bid for control.
Both of these sides will know that another heavyweight will come on the scene next season with Racing Metro set to join the club.
Motivation should be at its peak for both and in that scenario, with a slight edge in game-management, Toulon could become the latest side to show that while Clermont are a supreme league team they tend to be more vulnerable than most in the white heat of knockout rugby.
Heineken Cup Final Prediction: Clermont 14-16 Toulon
Clermont Auvergne: Lee Byrne; Sitiveni Sivivatu, Aurelien Rougerie (capt), Wesley Fofana, Napolioni Nalaga; Brock James, Morgan Parra; Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Davit Zirakashvili, Jamie Cudmore, Nathan Hines, Julien Bonnaire, Gerhard Vosloo, Damien Chouly.
Replacements: Ti'I Paulo, Vincent Debaty, Clement Ric, Julien Pierre, Julien Bardy, Ludovic Radosavljevic, David Skrela, Regan King.
Toulon: Delon Armitage; Rudi Wulf, Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau, Alexis Palisson; Jonny Wilkinson (capt), Sebastien Tillous-Borde; Andrew Sheridan, Sebastien Bruno, Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha, Nick Kennedy, Danie Rossouw, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Chris Masoe.
Replacements: Jean Charles Orioli, Gethin Jenkins, Davit Kubriashvili, Joe Van Niekerk, Steffon Armitage, Maxime Mermoz, Frederic Michalak, Jocelino Suta.