Toulon underline 'Best club in Europe' status Posted almost 3 years ago


Photo: The Telegraph

Toulon underlined their status as the best club side in the northern hemisphere with a 24-18 victory over Clermont Auvergne in the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup final at Twickenham.

An unprecedented third straight success in Europe’s premier competition not only made rugby history but also converted their recent dominance into a dynasty.

The final itself produced two stunning moments with Clermont’s Nick Abendanon and Toulon’s Drew Mitchell crossing for scores certainly worthy of the occasion – but another equally mind-blowing incident arguably decided the contest.

The game was finely balanced at the break with a try from Mathieu Bastareaud and the prolific boot of Leigh Halfpenny having steered Toulon into a 16-11 lead.

Toulon coach Bernard Laporte was clearly taking nothing for granted with cameras inside the defending champions’ changing room relaying pictures of him hammering home the message to his star-studded squad with a display as animated as any delivered by his players.

The next score and the momentum it would bring would be pivotal – and Clermont gift wrapped it for their French rivals.

The second half was just a few minutes old when Clermont wing Noa Nakaitaci failed to claim long Toulon clearance and he could only fumble the ball into touch.

Toulon wing Bryan Habana was soon bearing down on him, sniffing out the ball and an opportunity as he has done so successfully throughout his glittering career.

Sadly for Clermont, his 24-year-old Fijian rival is not blessed with such experience.

Under immense pressure, having committed a sloppy error in the biggest game of his life, Nakaitaci needed a moment of calm and clear-thinking.

Instead he allowed his anger and frustration to get the better of him and he opted to throw the ball away and deny Habana the chance to restart the game quickly.

Habana’s incredulity was Oscar-worthy but you sense the crime would not have been missed by referee Nigel Owens, as accomplished as ever with the whistle in his latest impressive audition for the Rugby World Cup final, who wasted little time in awarding a full penalty to Toulon.

Up stepped Halfpenny whose successful kick carried his side into an eight-point lead and crucially beyond a converted score.

It was not the only example of indiscipline from Clermont but it was arguably the most damaging.

Unable to conjure the attacking energy that has accounted for many on their way to the final, and frustrated by a resolute Toulon defence, Clermont needed a moment of individual brilliance to drag themselves back into the game – and that is what they got.

Fullback Nick Abendanon delivered one of the best tries ever seen in the competition – and at English rugby’s HQ.

He showed incredible vision, skill and pace in chipping over the Toulon defence before collecting his own kick and casually strolling in for the score.

What more the in-form Abendanon has to do to force his way back into the England set-up – beyond moving back to the UK to satisfy their questionable selection criteria – is beyond me.

The conversion from Camille Lopez, a late replacement for Brock James who was injured in the warm-up, brought Clermont to within a point but it would be as close as they would get.

Toulon served up their own moment of magic with wing Drew Mitchell carving his way through six would-be tacklers on his way to a try that was as jaw-dropping as Abendanon’s earlier effort.

Unlike their English counterparts, the Australian Rugby Union have realised that ignoring the best players available to them just because they happen to play their rugby overseas is a dangerous policy.

Mitchell is one of those that may benefit from a relaxing of Australia’s selection rules, along with team-mate Matt Giteau, and how the Wallabies would love a repeat when they tackle England in the Rugby World Cup on the same ground on October 3.

As noteworthy the performances of his players, the achievement of Laporte should not be over-looked.

A squad featuring some of the biggest names in the game, many no strangers to success and personal acclaim, boast the fiercest of team spirits that was reflected in Man of the Match Ali Williams’ post-match interview where he stressed the desire not to let his team-mates down.

In particular they were determined to ensure a fitting finale to the careers of captain Carl Hayman, Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha who will finally hang up their boots at the end of the season and whose names were ebroidered into the Toulon shirts.

The void left by that stellar trio will be filled by just the latest big names to be lured to the south of France in the form of the likes of Quade Cooper, Samu Manoa and current Clermont wing Napolioni Nalaga but do not expect any change to the club’s powerful ethos.

Clermont coach Franck Azema faces an even greater challenge to that met repeatedly by Laporte.

He must rally his troops after yet another heart-breaking defeat with the club having suffered the same fate at the hands of Toulon in the 2012-13 finale.

Possible redemption awaits on the domestic front as the Top 14 builds to a climax but a familiar foe is likely to block their path – Toulon.

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist who has been reporting around the rugby globe for over 20 years. A former editor of the leading rugby union website, he is a veteran of five World Cups and cites England’s 2003 triumph as the most memorable moment of his professional career - closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.

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