Are Toulon about to join European Rugby's elite?

Jonny Wilkinson is set to retire but his Toulon team have unfinished business

Our Leeds team are excited about the Heineken Cup and think that Toulon are looking good...

Toulon could be about to join Europe's elite, putting their name alongside Leinster, Munster, Leicester, Toulouse and Wasps as clubs who have managed to win the Heineken Cup on at least two occasions.

On the face of it, it would be a remarkable achievement for a team languishing in Pro D2 in 2008, but their success could leave a bitter taste in the mouth of some rugby fans.

'Money' is the operative word that people use to diminish their accomplishments, an expression which has become synonymous with the professional era, particularly for those who hark back to the perceived halcyon days of the past.

Mourad Boudjellal is the owner who has ploughed millions into the club, assembling a glitterati of stars from the around the world to plan his assault on the Top 14 and Europe.

Bakkies Botha, Matt Giteau, Carl Hayman and of course Jonny Wilkinson prove that the list is endless in terms of outstanding international players who have opted to ply their trade in the south of France.

But without their culture - as their opponents in this final, Saracens, will attest to - Boudjellal's project would be a failure.

The London-based outfit were one of those that dabbled with bringing in world stars for instant success. Greats of the game Tim Horan, Philippe Sella, Michael Lynagh and
Francois Pienaar all played for them at one point or another, but they were better known for their underachievement than anything else.

That changed with the introduction of Brendan Venter in 2009 as, although the spending continued, the right balance was eventually found.

A spine of South African and young English talent was built and, despite the departure of Venter as director of rugby, a series of impressive campaigns has eventually culminated in the greatest year in their history.

Saturday's showpiece will therefore bring together two unique clubs who have followed their own paths to challenge and ultimately win trophies.

Much of the focus will undoubtedly centre on the battle at stand-off between - as clichéd as it sounds - the master and heir apparent.

Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson confirmed that he will retire at the end of season, following an outstanding career in which he has established himself as one of the all-time greats.

Wilkinson, as ever, will bring solidity in defence, a reassuring presence at fly-half and a dead-eye boot from the tee, traits not too dissimilar to Sarries' Owen Farrell.

The current England stand-off has always displayed that composure, particularly with his place-kicking, but what has impressed most recently is the development in his attacking game.

You think of Dan Carter, Quade Cooper and Jonny Sexton, players who naturally stand flat to the gain-line but while he hardly possesses the genius of Carter or the enigmatic tendencies of Cooper, Farrell has managed to develop an extra weapon to his armoury.

However, the influence of the respective 10's will be rendered meaningless if their packs don't provide the platform necessary.

Bernard Laporte's men were brutal in their dismantling of three-time European champions Leinster in the quarter-finals and eventually outmuscled a typically dogged Munster side in the last four.

Unusually, the scrum has shown an element of fallibility for the Stade Mayol team, despite the presence of Hayman at tight-head, leading Laporte to describe it as 'the worst scrum in the Top 14.'

But it is in the back-five where Toulon find their opponents wanting; not surprising when you consider the might of Botha, Danie Roussouw, Juan Smith, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Steffon Armitage.

Armitage, perhaps the least heralded when he arrived in 2011, has been their standout performer in this Heineken Cup campaign, so much so that there has been a clamour to include the back-rower in the England squad.

Even if the chances of that happening are minute, due to Stuart Lancaster's insistence of not picking French-based players apart from in 'exceptional circumstances,' the 28-year-old has displayed his value to the side on numerous occasions.

His battle with Billy Vunipola could prove instrumental in deciding the outcome of the match. Following his arrival from Wasps last summer, Vunipola became the Red Rose's first choice no.8 in the autumn and his destructive ball-carrying will be vital if Saracens are to get on the front foot.

Before their 46-6 thrashing of Clermont Auvergne in the semi-final, Sarries had struggled to match the sheer brute force of teams from across the Channel.

Losses to Clermont, Toulon in last year's meeting in the final four, and twice to Toulouse in the group stages cast doubt over their ability to compete with the best in France.

But that all changed against Auvergne as a Jacques Burger-inspired defence manned the barricades and blocked out any potential threat.

Get a Free £/€20 Exchange Bet

  • Join Now - Open account using promo code VAL225
  • Bet - Place a £/€20 Bet on the Exchange
  • Earn We'll Refund You £/€20 If the Bet Loses

T&Cs apply.

Discover the latest articles