Clermont Auvergne vs. Toulon: 5 Players to Watch in Champions Cup Final
For the second time in three seasons, Clermont Auvergne and Toulon will contest European rugby’s biggest prize.
The name might have changed but the teams dominating Europe are the same.
In 2013 Jonny Wilkinson steered Toulon back into a game largely dominated by Clermont, and Delon Armtiage’s breakaway try clinched the Heineken Cup as it was known then for Mourad Boudjellal’s star–studded club.
They repeated the feat last season against Saracens to give Wilkinson the fairytale ending his career deserved, with Clermont having spectacularly failed at the semi-final stage against Saracens.
The men from the Massif Central avenged that defeat by the Fez Heads in this season’s last four, and they now have the chance to put right their 2013 heartache inflicted by Toulon.
If the team from the Stade Felix Mayol are to secure an unprecedented third consecutive European crown they will do so without Wilkinson this time, while Clermont seem to have found an Anglo-Saxon talisman of their own who has been ripping up teams in Europe this season.
Let’s have a look at five men around whom this final will turn.
1. Frederic Michalak
A career that has spanned 14 years has divided opinion throughout on Freddie Michalak.
An on–off love affair with the French national team has been punctuated with a spell in Super Rugby and a switch from aristocrats Toulouse to nouveau riche Toulon.
This season the 32-year-old has perhaps shouldered the heaviest burden of his time in the sport—replacing the irreplaceable Jonny Wilkinson.
At times he has kicked well and performed superbly behind that monstrous Toulon pack, and at others he has looked all at sea, as he did in a slippery semi-final with Leinster.
In true Michalak style, he followed that dreadful showing in the rain of Marseilles with a masterclass in defeat to La Rochelle.
On Saturday, Toulon need him on his game. He will be hunted by the likes of Fritz Lee and Damien Chouly, and his nerve will need to hold in those crucial pressure moments when taking aim at the sticks.
Bernard Laporte was a big Michalak fan during his days as French coach and was often repaid with dazzling moments from this mercurial maestro. He needs a few more from his key man this weekend.
2. Nick Abendanon
So good has Abendanon been this season that he has brought pressure on the English Rugby Football Union to scrap their non-selection stance on overseas-based players.
Abendanon has flourished amid the hubbub of the yellow-clad masses in the heart of France.
The former Bath flyer reminded English rugby of his free-running qualities when he inspired Clermont to a devastating win over Northampton in the Champions Cup quarter–final.
If Clermont can free him in similar areas of the field this weekend he can cause plenty of damage.
3. Guilhem Guirado
Guirado has been the stand-out hooker in Europe this season.
His ball-carrying has been a regular feature of Toulon’s play, proving himself to be adept at busting tackles with incisive angles as well as offloading to support runners.
In a game likely to be tight, if he can burst some holes by running off the back of lineouts or breaking the gain line near rucks, he will give Toulon the momentum they need to overwhelm Clermont’s defence.
4. Wesley Fofana
Fofana at his best is arguably the world’s finest inside centre.
With searing speed off the mark and snake hips that squeeze him through the tightest of gaps, he is Clermont’s key danger man.
Before Clermont’s semi-final win over Saracens he was described in the Daily Mail by French legend Serge Betsen as “so talented and skilful that something happens every time he gets the ball.”
And he delivered on that billing with a wonderful try to put his team ahead.
5. Leigh Halfpenny
Halfpenny took a little while to settle in his new surroundings. But the Lions star is now knocking over goals with that metronomic regularity that has made him one of the world’s best goal-kickers.
The Welshman was the key man in a dour semi-final against Leinster that dragged on into extra time.
The former Cardiff Blues man contributed 20 points in all and was showered with praise afterwards by the goal-kicker he has replaced at Toulon, Jonny Wilkinson, who told walesonline.co.uk:
He’s so focused and to play a game like that, to go through the intensity of a game like that; first half, second half, third half, fourth half and still have the freshness to approach goal kicks in the last few minutes that really count, when every emotion has been drained from you.
To step up and actually get better as the game goes on – that’s the definition of world class in terms of goalkicking.
That’s what you get from a guy who deserves to be that good.