The stadium known almost since its creation by the grandiose title of ‘Headquarters’ will be commandeered on Saturday week by the two most powerful tribes from the other side of the English Channel. Toulon and Clermont will stage a strictly French affair because between them they have seen off the best the Irish and English have to offer.
If it is anything like the last time France captured Twickenham, during the 1999 World Cup against New Zealand, it will be some occasion. The All Blacks, cruising towards the semi-finals at 24-10, conceded 33 points during 30 minutes of pure French magic.
The followers for this year’s finalists will come by the ten thousand, making it possibly the biggest invasion of England since the Norman Conquest. Like the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the one certainty about Saturday week is that the winner will come from the continent.
Leinster’s noble challenge down on the Mediterranean floated away on Ian Madigan’s fateful pass in extra-time. Twenty four hours earlier in Saint Etienne, England’s last hope, Saracens, succumbed to a solitary piece of Brock James ingenuity from Clermont during the first of two attritional semi-finals.
Toulon did the double over Ulster, Clermont did the same to Munster and then ran rings round the English champions, Northampton, before overpowering last year’s finalists, Saracens. Neutrals can only hope that after May 2 they are no longer the best club not to have conquered Europe.
After all the wrangling over the painful birth of the Champions Cup, organisers will want something more customer-friendly from the final. Toulon, one win away from a unique hat-trick of European titles, will settle for nothing more fancy than a barrage of Leigh Halfpenny penalties.
There have already been four all-French finals. The fifth, paradoxically, promises more of a pan-European flavour than any final, with a prop from Belguim (Vincent Debaty), a flanker from Portugal (Julien Bardy), a pair of Welsh backs (Jonathan Davies and Halfpenny), a few English emigres (notably the Armitage brothers), Georgian props and perhaps even an Italian. Between them, the French superpowers will bring a galaxy of stars from further afield — Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, South Africa, Argentina and New Caledonia.
These are trying times for referees and TMO’s. The Italian referee Marius Mitrea and his Irish video man, Alan Rogan, got it hopelessly wrong when both failed to recognise Nick Williams’s assault on Welsh fly-half Rhys Patchell as a straight red.
Retrospective justice is better than no justice and while the Ulster back row forward has been banned until next season for his gratuitous violence, there is no substitute for punishing the crime at the scene. In that respect, Chris Ashton got away with it during Saturday’s semi-final at St Etienne.
When George Clancy from Limerick asked Simon McDowell from Larne to adjudicate on whether Napolioni Nalaga had scored in the corner, McDowell saw that Clermont’s Fijian was touch in-goal before grounding the ball and ruled accordingly. He said nothing about the video showing that Ashton, in his desperation to retrieve a desperate situation, had used an illegal tackle to prevent Nalaga scoring. Surely, it ought to have been a penalty try to Clermont and 10 minutes on the naughty chair for Ashton.
Saracens may have fallen cruelly short of a second successive final but when it comes to the endless quest for that extra motivational edge, there is nobody in Europe to touch them.
Those invited to address the squad included an 85-year-old woman, Renee Salt, a Holocaust survivor who related her experiences at Auschwitz and Belsen. She spoke shortly before Sarries won their make-or-break pool match against Munster.
Quite what that contributed to a result which left the perennial quarter-finalists twiddling their thumbs for the rest of the European campaign, nobody will ever know. But there must have been something in it because the English club’s Irish director of rugby, Mark McCall, treated his players to another speaker before the semi-final.
Jim McGuinness might not have come as far out of left-field as Renee, he might never have played rugby and the blinkered English professionals might not have heard of him. The Resurrection Man from Glenties knows an awful lot about winning ball games.
He transformed Donegal from serial losers into All-Ireland football champions and having worked wonders for his native county, Celtic took him on as their sports psychologist. So, too, did Paul McGinley in his capacity as Europe captain at last year’s Ryder Cup and look what happened to the Yanks.
According to Sarries’ Irish director of rugby McCall, McGuinness ‘captivated the players’ and inspired them. It wasn’t his fault if they failed narrowly to clear the biggest obstacle in the game but at least they were counted out on their feet.
They could have done with a little on-field help from another Donegal man — Dave Gallaher from Ramelton, captain of the original All Black invincibles more than a century ago.