Toulon vs. Castres: Key Battles That Will Shape Top 14 Final
Jonny Wilkinson will go in search of the perfect end to his career on Saturday when Toulon look to add the French Top 14 title to their Heineken Cup success.
The men from the Med face Castres in a replica of last season’s final. It was Castres who came out on top a year ago, as Toulon rested several front-line troops following their Heineken Cup win over Clermont Auvergne.
There is little chance of Bernard Laporte making the same mistake again, while Castres' 19-14 win in last season’s final was their first for 20 years, and they will be desperate not to wait another 20 for their next.
Here is where the key battles will unfold.
Steffon Armitage, the newly crowned European Player of the Year, was astonishingly good on the ground against Saracens.
He forced four turnovers by clamping that spherical body of his over the ball and frustrating the hell out of Saracens, who found neither fluidity nor forward momentum in the face of Toulon’s suffocating work at the ruck.
This area, again, will be crucial. Toulon can stifle any side’s ball, and if they get a quick ball of their own, have the world-class quality out wide to make it count. Castres knew this last season and threw their own blanket over Toulon’s attempts to up the tempo.
The most remarkable thing about Toulon last weekend was the sheer workload their locks and back-row trio got through in defence.
At any one point there were at least three of them fighting for every inch, every second they could delay Saracens from starting their next phase.
Castres have players capable of equaling that work rate with the likes of Richie Gray in the second row and Antonie Claassen playing No. 7.
It could be decided by who drops off the pace first.
The Battle of the Boot
Last season’s final saw the rare occurrence of Jonny Wilkinson being out-pointed by Castres scrum-half Rory Kockott.
The South African No. 9 scored a try and added eight points through kicks to dominate the scoring.
He also ran the game beautifully in harness with fly-half Remi Tales. Wilkinson and his half-back partner Sebastien Tillous-Borde were imperious last weekend against Saracens, with the scrum-half taking on much of the tactical kicking responsibility while Jonny was his usual self when taking aim at the sticks.
It will be intriguing to see which pairing gains the upper hand in Paris on Saturday, and who wins the kicking duel both from tee and from hand.
Some of those Toulon boys are a bit long in the tooth.
It would not be out of turn to assume the likes of Bakkies Botha, Juan Smith and Carl Hayman take a few extra stretches and massages to rid themselves of the creaks and crunches after a hard battle like the one they had with Saracens.
Today’s modern science probably means most of Toulon’s side have spent a large part of the week in the equivalent of a blast-chiller to speed up their recovery and get them ready for one last war.
If their energy levels are replenished to the full, they will surely have the quality to go one better than last season.
If not, Castres will cash in. Perhaps the difference this time is Toulon were agog at claiming their first Heineken Cup last year. It was new ground, exciting times and hard to come down from. They have travelled that road now and know what comes next.
The Top 2 Inches
Toulon’s physical recovery is one thing, but how do they approach this mentally?
In the other rematch of the weekend, Carl Froch has to lay to rest the mental demons George Groves so successfully planted in his head before their first fight.
If he can do that he will stand a great chance of beating Groves convincingly.
Do it not, and the way the younger man battered him in those first six rounds will haunt him, as will the Londoner’s relentless attacks on his skills and quality as a fighter.
Toulon have to overcome the fact that Castres had their number last season. They were comprehensively outwitted, and may be wondering privately if they have the ability to find the solution to stop that from happening again.
Castres come in knowing they found a way to beat Toulon last season and have the added psychological fillip of having ended one of sport's greatest winning sequences. They dumped Clermont Auvergne out on their own patch, a ground where they had won 77 straight matches.
Whoever holds the cards in this respect will have the edge.