Hat-trick of titles for Toulon

TOULON 24 CLERMONT AUVERGNE 18: Be careful what you wish for.

The English and French clubs wanted control of the European Cup, and they got it after months of boardroom bitterness.

Twickenham got the first Champions Cup final by design, and by default, they ended up with two French teams in it.

Two sides who, like the rest of the clubs in France, don’t travel. The two juggernauts weren’t expected to throw the ball around either, they have the sheer power to beat teams into submission.

So the rest of Europe sat back and waited to revel in a dour, perhaps try-less, final in a half-empty stadium.

But the first Champions Cup final, the 20th European final, was memorable.

Over 56,000 turned up, the free tickets dished out during the week obviously worked but the two clubs, particularly Clermont, travelled in decent numbers and brought plenty of colour and noise to the occasion.

Those who wrangled to get control of Europe’s premier rugby event hardly envisaged having to give out free tickets to get bums on seats for the final. The touts hardly foresaw such a day either.

A tout outside Twickenham train station at lunchtime knew he was in for a tough day. He was offering a £60 ticket for £50 but, without either of us breaking stride, he dropped the price quickly, getting down to £20 in seconds —and then offered to throw a second ticket in for free!

They managed to place the crowd of 56,662 strategically throughout the stadium so it didn’t look too bad. But it’s worth remembering that Saturday’s crowd was bigger than eight of the previous 19 finals, including all three which were played in Dublin.

The resources these two clubs are mind-boggling. Clermont lost Brock James in the warm-up, so they slotted French out-half Camile Lopez in from the start. His place on the bench was taken by All Black Mike Delany. Look at Munster, Leinster and Ulster — who would their third choice No.10 be in such circumstances? But for all the money, there is a human touch to these clubs as well.

Ali Williams, the former All Black legend who retires in a few weeks, flew his parents from New Zealand for the game. They are English, having emigrated in the 1970s, his father is tetrapalegic, confined to a wheelchair since he fell down the stairs at an Elton John concert in 1998.

He wanted them back in their native land to see his final game at Twickenham, the place where he made his All Blacks debut. “It’s a special day, no doubt about it. These are special group of players, but it was particularly nice to win this one.”

The crowd was the smallest at the five finals staged at Twickenham but those hoping to gloat at a dour contest and the empty seats, were disappointed as the game exploded into a great contest after the restart. By then Toulon had hauled Clermont back, the boot of Leigh Halfpenny taking the sting out of the Michelin men’s start after Lopez landed two penalties and then Wesley Fofana broke for the opening try after scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde had a kick charged down by his opposite number Morgan Parra.

Toulon hit the front in first-half stoppage when Mathieu Bastareaud bulldozed his way over to lead 16-11 at the break.

Halfpenny extended the lead when a frustrated Noa Nakaitaci threw the ball away. However, Clermont hit back and full-back Nick Abendanon chipped and chased for a superb try.

But the quality of that was surpassed by a wonderful burst from Drew Mitchell, and while the defending was poor as he sped through five challenges, it was a score worthy of winning any cup final.

Clermont piled on the pressure in the dying minutes and went close but Lopez cross-kicked in the final move just when it seemed Toulon might buckle and Bryan Habana got his hands to it. That was the cue for the celebrations to begin as Toulon became the first side to win it three years in a row.

Next year’s final is apparently going to be in Marseille. They should probably have it in France every year for they will surely have one contestant in it each season.

And what of Clermont? The abiding memory is the fans in tears surrounding the team bus behind the West Stand as they consoled each other in the darkening London evening.

Scorers for Toulon:

Tries: M Bastareaud, D Mitchell; Cons: L Halfpenny; Pens: Halfpenny (4).

Scorers for Clermont Auvergne:

Tries: W Fofana, N Abendanon; Cons: C Lopez; Pens: Lopez (2).

TOULON:

L Halfpenny; D Mitchell, M Bastareaud, JM Hernandez, B Habana; M Giteau, S Tillous-Borde; X Chiocci, G Guirado, C Hayman; B Botha, A Williams; J Smith, S Armitage, C Masoe.

Replacements:

R Taofifenua for Botha, 48; A Menini for Chiocci, 49; JM Fernandez Lobbe for Smith, 59; JC Orioli for Guirado, 64; L Chilachava for Hayman, 64; R Wulf for Hernandez, 67.

CLERMONT AUVERGNE:

N Abendanon; N Nakaitaci, J Davies, W Fofana, N Nalaga; C Lopez, M Parra; V Debaty, B Kayser, D Zirakashvili; J Cudmore, S Vahaamahina; J Bonnaire, D Chouly, F Lee.

Replacements:

T Domingo for Debaty, 48; A Rougerie for Nalaga, 55; J Bardy for Lee, 55; J Ulugia for Kayser, 64; C Ric for Zirakashvili, 67; M Delany for Nakaitaci, 67; J Pierre for Vahaamahina, 67.

Referee:

N Owens (Wales).


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