The Heineken Cup reaches its climax in Dublin on Saturday with two French teams, Clermont Auvergne and Toulon, both made up largely of non-French players, bidding to win the tournament for the first time in a match that may be a prelude to the Top 14 final on June 1.
Clermont and Toulon finished first and second in the Top 14, separated by a mere point after 26 gruelling rounds. The league matters most to supporters in France because of its longevity – the first final was held in 1892 – and because the H Cup, as European club rugby’s major tournament is known there because of advertising restrictions – is regarded with some suspicion, seen as an Anglo-Saxon production that is weighted against teams on the other side of the English Channel.
It has not stopped the French clubs from joining with the English in dropping an H bomb on the organisers by giving notice to pull out after next season’s tournament because of misgivings about the way it, along with its junior sibling, the Amlin Challenge Cup, is run. Despite the havoc that would cause in the three Celtic nations and Italy, little headway has been made in talks.
All French finals in the past have tended to be grinding rather than spellbinding. The game there is still romanticised for its flair and flare-ups, ball-handling and manhandling forwards and big-booted and elusive backs all blending together in a mixture of beauty and brutality, dazzling footwork not always about leaving a defender clasping air, but that is to hark back to a largely bygone era.
The French game now focuses on power, the gradual accretion of foreign players by clubs diluting what was a singular, innate approach to the game. No team has scoured overseas more than Toulon who have regularly only had four home players in their starting line-up this season and whose acquisitive harvesting of points is masterminded by Jonny Wilkinson, a supreme goal-kicking and gameplan executor who is far removed from the broken play practitioners who once thrived in France.
It is four years since a French player scored a try in a Top 14 final; the two that have been created since have been finished by Fijian wingers, but the showpiece is largely the preserve of the boot, both teams knackered at the end of a season that spans a couple of weeks shy of 10 months.
The end of the regular season earlier this month saw clubs go into party mode. The seven fixtures yielded an average of 66 points with only one failing to break the 60-mark. Clermont stuck 67 on Bordeaux-Begles and if the Heineken Cup final is to be more than a shoot-out between Wilkinson and Morgan Parra, the club from the Massif Central will need to dictate tactically.
They have in Wesley Fofana a 12 the Lions could use in Australia. A skilful footballer who finds space where none appears to exist, but their catalyst is based on the wing, the New Zealand international Sitiveni Sivivatu who regards the number on his back merely as a detail for the match programme.
When Clermont were trailing to Montpellier in the quarter-final, Sivivatu turned the game with a series of breaks in midfield, keeping moves going by off-loading, a skill that few players in Europe dare risk these days. He may not have the speed of old, but he gets his side playing at pace. When they are in front, Parra’s tactical awareness generally keeps them there.
Toulon are more functional. They have not scored a try in their last three Heineken Cup matches, but they overcame a strong challenge by Leicester in the quarter-finals before out muscling Saracens at Twickenham in the last four, victories that gave impetus to the campaign to get the Lions to pick Wilkinson. They like to scrummage and maul and if Clermont have a weakness it is an indiscipline the 2003 World Cup winner will punish, the likes of Nathan Hines and Jamie Cudmore old heads but hotheads.
Wilkinson was Toulon’s match-winner with his faultless kicking, but the Lions will surely need more in Australia. They will have to rise above the Six Nations, which had its lowest ever try yield this year, and the Heineken Cup where the six matches in the knock-out stage so far have produced 10 tries, half of them scored by Clermont.
The game in Europe could so do with a final that relies on art rather than science. Clermont Auvergne’s presence in Dublin gives the dreamers hope.
How do you see the ‘H Cup’ final going? Comments below…