Richie Gray issued a reminder to Gregor Townsend that he is fit and ready for World Cup duty if required when he helped Toulouse land the Top 14 title with a win over Clermont Auvergne at the Stade de France.
Meanwhile, Gray’s fellow Scot Greig Laidlaw delivered another flawless kicking performance although that was not enough to rescue an underpowered Clermont.
Gray, pictured below, has been omitted from the Japan-bound Scotland squad after a year that has been punctuated by injury. But he showed that he is back to his best in his 12th appearance of the campaign. He replaced Richie Arnold after 43 minutes and went on to make a contribution that underlined his value at the lineout and as a defensive force, topped off by a thumping tackle on Sébastien Vahaamahina in the dying seconds.
It was the Scot’s second final, and the victory atoned for the disappointment of featuring in a losing Castres Olympique side five years ago.
Toulouse started the match as favourites after ending the regular league programme with a 15-point lead over second-place Clermont. This was a 20th title for the club and ended a seven-year barren spell.
Their progress after a period in the doldrums has been recognised by French coach Jacques Brunel, with 11 players in the 65-strong provisional squad for the World Cup. That will be trimmed tomorrow, although Toulouse will still be well represented.
They failed to produce their best rugby but showed the greater flair of the two sides, although the game was largely an attritional affair, only rarely sparking into life. The result underlined the progress made by Ugo Mola since he took over as head coach.
He has worked particularly hard on discipline, a vital factor against a side with a reliable kicker. That was the case on Saturday in a contest watched by 79,786 spectators, with Greig Laidlaw producing his latest flawless kicking performance. The 33-year-old scrum half banged over five penalties from five before being substituted with 13 minutes to play. That extended his run of success with the boot to 22 kicks.
Three Laidlaw efforts left Clermont two points adrift at half-time after man of the match Yoann Huget touched down and Thomas Ramos landed two penalties. Laidlaw and Ramos had a penalty apiece before Toulouse struck the decisive blow when Huget dotted down once more, becoming the first player to score two tries in a final since the Top 14 was introduced in 2005. Ramos converted then responded in kind to a Laidlaw three pointer to leave the gap at nine points entering the final 15 minutes. For the first time this season, Clermont failed to score a try and, with Laidlaw substituted, all they could muster was a penalty by Camille Lopez as they suffered a 12th defeat in 14 final appearances.
“I would liked to have played a bit more rugby at key moments”, admitted Mola. “I have been lucky to train these exceptional players – kids who have made an impression on their generation. I’m very happy for them. I said three years ago that this generation would win things by 2020 and people laughed at me. But I knew it would happen.”
Clermont coach Franck Azéma was left ruing the efforts of his men, which fell short of expectations, saying, “We were always chasing the score so that was obviously frustrating. They produced a good match and we didn’t give our best performance of the season. That’s a regret for us. You also have to bear in mind that we were up against a good defence.”