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Top 14 Final 2015: Key Battles in Clermont Auvergne vs. Stade Francais

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistJune 10, 2015

Clermont Ferrand's Ludovic Radoslavjevic celebrates with his teammates after they won their European Champions Cup semifinal match against Saracens, in Saint-Etienne, central France, Saturday, April 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press

Saturday's Top 14 final will bring a close to the European club campaign as Stade Francais seek to steal the limelight from under Clermont Auvergne's nose.

The Parisian underdogs deserve their place in the French finale following a dominant 33-16 win over defending champions Toulon, while a closely fought 18-14 victory against Toulouse saw Clermont through.

Les Jaunards will appear in their first championship clash since 2010, but it's been an even longer wait for Stade to make the playoff crescendo, making their first final in eight years.

Both teams have motivation to break their respective trophy droughts. Here, we provide a look ahead to which key battles will have the greatest bearing on Saturday's outcome.

Julien Arias vs. Noa Nakaitaci

Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press

In what was a tight affair ruled largely by the two packs, Clermont's semi-final against Toulouse saw one player gain more yardage in open space than any other—Noa Nakaitaci.

Neither back line enjoyed a tremendous amount of attacking freedom—the losers in particular—but Nakaitaci finished as one of the fixture's standout figure with ball in hand, making 107 metres, per ESPN Scrum.

Stade Francais flyer Julien Arias couldn't boast the same sort of stats in his side's win over Toulon, but his 80th minute summed up the team's relentless attitude to be up front in their approach against daunting opponents.

Clermont have their share of kicking maestros capable of pinning Stade on the back foot if all goes to plan—Camille Lopez, Morgan Parra and Brock James will all be looking to cause Saturday's enemies issues in defence.

And with that burden tracking back comes a problem for Arias, who gave away two penalties in last weekend's win that the likes of Parra and James will be only too happy to punish should they arise again.

There's no doubt Clermont will look to control possession, go through the phases and open up space for their France international out wide if possible, and Nakaitaci is the kind of weapon likely to make good use of it.

Fritz Lee vs. Sergio Parisse

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 02:  Fritz Lee of Clermont is halted by Chris Masoe of Toulon and Alexandre Menini of Toulon during the European Rugby Champions Cup Final match between ASM Clermont Auvergne and RC Toulon at Twickenham Stadium on May 2, 2015 in Lond
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

In more ways than one, the No. 8 battle between Fritz Lee and Sergio Parisse has the makings of a mammoth encounter, with both players bringing differing form into Saturday's final.

Lee finished the match against Toulouse as Clermont's highest tackler with 12 to his name, while Andy McGeady of the Irish Times illustrated just what a phenomenon Parisse was in attack for Stade against Toulon:

Andy McGeady @andymcgeady

Parisse. He got skillz. https://t.co/zh0UW33QQE

It's a role he bears for the Italian national team, and Parisse will be asked to once more be the leader as his club goes in search of huge honours, something most of the rugby community knows him to be entirely capable of.

Simon Thomas of Wales Online agrees the Italy captain can look like he's of another planet from time to time, with Stade hoping to squeeze one more such performance out of their star this season:

Simon Thomas @simonrug

So, Toulon are human after all. Not sure about Sergio Parisse though. He's from another planet.

It will in fact take more than just Lee to stop a player of this caliber—that's no disservice to the former Chiefs back-rower; rather, it's merely an indicator as to just what a talent Parisse is.

The likes of Damien Chouly and Julien Bardy will be needed around the fringes and out wide if Stade's talisman is to be halted, requiring near-constant attention in order to limit his input.

Thomas Domingo vs. Rabah Slimani

CLERMONT-FERRAND, FRANCE - DECEMBER 14:  Noa Nakaitaci (L) of Clermont Auvergne is congratulated by team mate Thomas Domingo after scoring a try during the European Rugby Champions Cup pool one match between ASM Clermont Auvergne and Munster at Stade Marc
David Rogers/Getty Images

The 17-point differential between Toulon and Stade Francais last Friday would suggest the victors conquered the back-line struggle, but the latter's scrum dominance is also deserving of its mention.

In a game that saw Toulon lose five of their nine put-ins and Stade lose none, Rabah Slimani stood out as a man who gave the reigning champions considerable set-piece trouble.

His fight to emerge as victor over Xavier Chiocci made for superb entertainment, and the final brings another top-tier prop head-to-head against Clermont's Thomas Domingo.

As previously mentioned, whichever side should see the greater percentage of penalties on Saturday will go a long way in deciding this season's champion, with eyes on this pair in particular to decide that split.

Morne Steyn has been domineering from the tee in recent weeks, converting 28 of his side's 38 points in the quarter-final routing of Racing Metro before slotting another 18 points last week.

Loose-head Domingo will be wary of Slimani's threat, having worked alongside one another in the French national team, and this front-row staredown in particular carries some serious weight.

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