It may be an all-French affair when ASM Clermont Auvergne and Toulon clash at the Aviva Stadium this evening in the 18th Heineken Cup final, but there will be no escaping an Irish tinge to events in Dublin.
An Irish referee in Francophile Alain Rolland and the Dublin rain will make sure of that as these Top 14 title rivals each bid to win Europe’s most coveted club prize for the first time, but Toulon captain Jonny Wilkinson is not perturbed by the forecast of a 95% chance of showers.
“If it does rain it’s the same for both teams. Everyone wants to go out there and play, but at the same time we have this all through our careers,” Wilkinson, 34 next month, said yesterday.
“You wake up in the morning and you just deal with what you have to deal with. You need to have a plan for what the conditions are and we’ll go with that.
“In terms of goal-kicking here, I’ve had some good days and bad days pretty much all around the world and I tend to focus too much on the bad days. So I’m going to try and make tomorrow a better one. I’ve still got work to do to prepare but the ground out there is something else and even with the rain I’m sure it will be a great surface.”
Toulon director of rugby Bernard Laporte is acutely aware of the impact Rolland can have on proceedings having seen the Irishman’s officiating at close hand in his team’s semi-final victory at Twickenham over Saracens.
“The referee is always important to the outcome. We had Rolland in our semi-final and we know he doesn’t leave anything at the ruck area. Saracens were heavily penalised there within our 22 and that was an advantage for us.
“Refereeing is an element of the game and that doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, but we know that each referee has their own pet area to referee and we have to take that into consideration.”
In a game between two sides who have been locked tightly at the peak of the Top 14 table all season, Clermont edging the regular season standings by just a point after 26 games, this is sure to be a game of narrow margins. Indeed, only three points separated the teams over two league matches head to head, Clermont winning 24-21 at their Stade Marcel Michelin fortress in November and then earning a 26-26 draw on April 14 at Stade Felix Mayol.
The predicted downpour in the capital will only add to the chances of a Top 14-style arm-wrestle and kicking shoot-out between Wilkinson and Clermont scrum-half Morgan Parra, but do not let that deter you from thinking this will be a gripping encounter. It should be. Wilkinson and Parra are two of the best in the business, each in the peak of form right now and both teams clearly mean business in their quests for a an all-too rare French-European double — they are each one match away froma rematch in the Top 14 finale on June 1.
As tight as the match promises to be this has all the hallmarks of a fascinating final between two French powerhouses stacked with cosmopolitan talents. And with Munster having ran Clermont so close in Montpellier in their semi-final last month, Vern Cotter’s side have lost a little of that air of invincibility that had been circulating since home and away wins over Leinster in the pool stages.
That and Ronan O’Gara’s ability in that semi-final to pin Clermont back in their corners will not have gone unnoticed by Wilkinson and the Toulon coaches.
This is a game that seems destined to go down to the wire, between two clubs with such depths of quality in their ranks that each member of either bench would not look out of place in the Test arena on any given weekend, most of them having already proven the point.
And there are still plenty of points to prove, aside from securing a first European success, not least Clermont’s bid to become the first side since the inaugural year of 1995 to win all nine matches en route to lifting the trophy. Or Toulon’s South African forwards, Danie Rossouw and Bakkies Botha, attempting to emulate Brad Thorn’s as of now unique treble of World Cup, Heineken Cup and Super Rugby with New Zealand, Leinster and Crusaders.
Something to savour, then, and if we must do without an Irish province in the final, then maybe this will prove to be the next best thing.
Three key battles
BROCK JAMES v JONNY WILKINSON
To many expert eyes, including those of former England coach Brian Ashton, Jonny Wilkinson is playing the best rugby of his career. Wilkinson was outstanding in the victories over Leicester and Saracens, earning him a nomination for European player of the year. James may not have Wilkinson’s celebrity but the Aussie offers similar control from fly-half and is an important cog in Clermont’s awesome attacking machine.
NATHAN HINES v BAKKIES BOTHA
The second-row battle will be ferocious, epitomised by Hines and Botha – two locks from the no-holds-barred school of rugby. Hines will be joined by Jamie Cudmore, the hard-hitting Canadian who is no stranger to the sin bin, and Botha by Nick Kennedy, the former England player who has added a new physical dimension to his game. It will not be a contest for the faint-hearted and all the more compelling for it.
WESLEY FOFANA v MATT GITEAU
Fofana, the sensational France centre, has been described as the complete midfielder and the most dangerous attacking rugby player in all of Europe. The 25-year-old has scored five tries in seven Heineken Cup appearances this season. Giteau is a different type of inside centre. While less of a direct running threat, the Australian still reads a game as well as anyone and he will share the playmaking duties with Wilkinson.
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