European Champions Cup: How Clermont can stop Toulon

TOULON are looking to make it three in a row for the first time ever. Their big rivals, Clermont, are looking to lift their first ever European Champions Cup and right a few wrongs at the same time after losing by the narrowest possible margin to the same opposition two years ago.

Leigh Halfpenny: best goalkicker in Top 14. Picture: Getty
Leigh Halfpenny: best goalkicker in Top 14. Picture: Getty

It is a match between two giants of European rugby with the budgets and squads to match. Both sides are peppered with world-class players, not that they ensure free-flowing entertainment.

For all the talk of flair, French clubs like to batter each other into submission before moving the ball much beyond the No.12 channel and both play-makers will be under strict instructions to make sure their team play in the right areas of the field. The only thing anyone remembers after Toulouse played Stade Francaise at Murrayfield in 2005 is Guy Noves getting his collar felt: the rugby was forgettable.

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If any club in Europe can stop Toulon from making history, it is the bruisers from Clermont, especially with a chip on their shoulder.

We asked a series of insiders who have seen Clermont up close and personal what the club must do to prevent Toulon from making history.

Vern Cotter, former Clermont coach

“I was involved two years ago [when the same two teams contested the final] and I think that this Clermont side will have learned some lessons from that defeat. We had a couple of calls go against us that day and the boys will be keen to take the referee out of the equation this time.

“I think that the Toulon scrum will be targeted – Clermont have the stronger scrum and they will try and make it tell. Their lineout and their driving maul have been going well this season and they will attempt to apply pressure with that.

“It will be interesting to see who starts at ten because Camille Lopez will give them better control and stiffen up their defence but Brock James was involved two years ago and he will want to put things right like so many others. They will all be fiercely determined and I think that will be enough to make the difference.

“Toulon will be better than they showed against Leinster but they have some ageing players and Clermont will squeeze them with lineout drives, scrum and on power plays with the twin centres Wesley Fofana and Jon Davies.

“Still, Steffon Armitage is the best player over the ball in the Top 14 and Leigh Halfpenny is the best goalkicker in the league if you look at the stats so Toulon will be tough to beat. My heart says Clermont will win and I can only hope I am right.”

Paul Burnell, former Clermont player

“I find this one really hard to call. My old club will field more French players than Toulon and more locals so they may bring that extra edge of passion to bear. They will also have more support than Toulon which should be an advantage but in terms of the final result… too close to call.”

Mark Bennett, former Clermont player

“All Clermont need to do is play with the same intensity that they did against Northampton and no one will touch them. Northampton are a really good side, but they were torn to pieces on the day [in the European quarter-final].

“I very much hope that Clermont win, I will be cheering them on one way or another, either in the ground or on TV. They are a great club with great players and it’s about time they triumphed in Europe.”

Neil McIlroy, Clermont’s team manager

“First of all we have to display a collective and an individual desire to win that is greater than the opposition and both teams have plenty of motivation. They are going for three in a row while we are trying to win our first European Champions Cup and our first silverware since winning the Top 14 in 2010. Toulon haven’t been in the best of form recently but that is irrelevant when it comes to a cup final.

“I think we are a better team for losing two years ago. We are more streetwise these days, we have a steely edge to our game so we are able to beat teams by lots of points, like we did against Northampton, or we can edge out a close, tight game like we did recently against Saracens in the semi-final.

“There won’t be any harking back to 2013 [when Toulon won by one point]. It’s ancient history. Maybe the press and the fans will talk about that game, but, in the modern game, players need to be lucid and calm. There is a danger if you look backwards that your heart rules your head, which we can’t afford.”

Nathan Hines, former Clermont player

“They only need to do one thing, it’s mental for them. After the defeat in 2013 [a game Hines played in] it was one of the worst dressing rooms I have ever been in. I think beating Saracens in the semi-final this year was a big hurdle for Clermont, but last time [in 2013’s final] the loss really hurt and it had a knock-on effect on the club who went on to lose the Top 14 semi-final. Clermont have cleared one hurdle, but they still need to put things right against Toulon.”