It’s well documented at this stage the Irish provinces are more than one step behind Toulon and Clermont, who are setting the standards that everyone else needs to meet. Next season will be a fascinating one for the provinces in that regard, given Ulster didn’t fire a shot, Munster couldn’t get out of their group and Leinster failed to win a semi-final that was there for the taking - even if only because Toulon were so poor.
Clermont and Toulon are now the focal points of European club rugby in a number of ways, as evidenced by some of the subplots that surround tomorrow’s Twickenham decider.
From an Irish perspective, the biggest show in town is whether Paul O’Connell will choose to finish his career in France, with Toulon sniffing around. Drew Mitchell gave more legs to the story this week when he spoke of the Munster lock in glowing terms, describing him as a potentially “invaluable addition” to the Toulon ranks.
It’s not too often in rugby that you hear players talk of potential new signings the way you might in soccer, but then Toulon are really good at targeting players. There are very few who have rejected them, and they usually get their men. They always put together a very attractive deal for a player, and in that regard I’m sure Paul has something to think about, but at the moment I don’t think it’s big enough to tempt him.
Most people would acknowledge Paul owes Munster nothing at this stage, but I don’t think he sees it that way. He will probably feel that to go somewhere else would undo everything he has done with Munster; that’s how loyal he is to the place and the project. He has to weigh it up and decide would it dilute his legacy at Munster - in my eyes it probably wouldn’t, but I’m not sure he wants to take the risk.
I’ve a fair idea of what Paul wants to do for the moment - he wants to prepare as best he can to give everything at the World Cup, and then reassess. He hasn’t spoken to me about anything after that or where he’ll be playing, he’s just focusing on finishing the season with Munster and then having a great pre-season leading into the World Cup.
Mitchell was full of big opinions this week and reckons England’s refusal to pick his Toulon team-mate Steffon Armitage is a “cop-out”. The rules around the selection of Australia’s foreign-based players having been relaxed in recent weeks and Michael Cheika has played that one well, opening the door to proven world-class players who have gone to the other side of the world for a new cultural experience.
It’s a little different for the English guys based in France, though, who Stuart Lancaster says will only be picked in “exceptional circumstances”. Armitage and Clermont’s Nick Abendanon should both play in the final tomorrow and thus are in the spotlight, but neither has any international pedigree and people under-estimate how big the jump is from the Champions Cup to Test rugby.
Lancaster has given Armitage, in particular, every chance to play by his rules to force his way into contention, either by joining a club this season or in June and he wasn’t prepared to do that. There’s no doubt he would be in their 30-man squad if he was based in England, but Lancaster’s stance sends a strong message to English players about protecting their domestic league.
If Armitage really wanted to go to the World Cup, he knew what needed to happen. There’s hysterics in some quarters that he isn’t involved, but you’re also talking about a guy who was exploring the possibility of playing for France only last summer. I just can’t understand people who don’t really know where they’re from; you see a lot more of that over here with South Africans playing for France. They’re comfortable with that, but how many French players do you see lining out for other nations?
These stories are, of course, just sideshows to the main event. I said last week that Toulon’s better track record would make them favourites the closer we got to this game, but I now think Clermont will win it.
Toulon might have an expensively-assembled side but they’re in decline - they’ve had their struggles in the front row and Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha don’t have much juice left in the tank. Also, Toulon just aren’t the same side with Jonny Wilkinson. We all saw how poorly Freddie Michalak controlled the semi-final, and that lack of a steady hand at 10 puts more emphasis on Matt Giteau at 12, whose game management is excellent but he hasn’t had a solid run of games to recapture last year’s excellent form.
Clermont have all the talent required to win this, but their issue is a mental one after bottling so many finals in the past. This is where Jono Gibbes could be the missing link to get them over the line; I’ve never spoken to him but he has a fantastic track record of getting the most out of players. At Leinster, he had a pack with some exceptional players and some average ones, but they gelled superbly and maximised their potential. He’s an expert around the ruck at Clermont’s ruck ball is a second quicker than it was as a result.
The major question for Clermont is who to play at 10. Brock James did really well in the quarters and the semis, while Camille Lopez has only played one game recently - a crushing 31-10 Top 14 defeat to relegation-threatened Castres last week. But both their European knockout wins were at home, and James has a history of meltdowns in away games - just ask Leinster - so Clermont may believe they are handing a psychological advantage to Toulon if they start him.
It will depend on what emphasis the coaches put on form and fitness, but should James not play he’ll be bitterly disappointed - having got the team through the last eight and last four, he will want the chance to get them over the line because it could change his career.
Regardless of who starts, both will pass the ball if its a dry day and that’s why this could be a more open final than people think, and not necessarily the kickfest many are predicting. Clermont will come to play, and it’ll suit them to be playing Toulon rather than a club from another country - they’ll treat it as a Top 14 games at a neutral venue and forget about the occasion.
But despite having the last two titles in the bag, Toulon are, incredibly, coming into this game under the radar after such a below par semi-final performance. The players will have felt the wrath of Bernard Laporte after that, and given Toulon have never put together poor back-to-back performances in big games, Clermont will need to watch out. Either way, we can expect fireworks.