#360Rugby: Toulon’s triumph confirms their place in history books

Martyn Thomas 19:34 04/05/2015
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  • Take off: Toulon just keep getting better.

    Twickenham was the place to be for rugby union fans this weekend as the European Champions and Challenge Cup finals took place, serving up more than a little drama in the process. Here’s what we learned from the action…

    Toulon have confirmed their place in history

    Toulouse may have won more trophies, Leicester and Munster might both have appeared in more European finals, but Toulon’s victory on Saturday confirmed their place at the top of the list of great continental club sides.

    Coach Bernard Laporte intimated as much at Twickenham when he suggested the feats of the club would live longer in the memory than those of the players involved.

    Of course Laporte would say that, he is a firm believer in the power of the collective and was fielding questions about the importance to victory of a piece of individual brilliance from Drew Mitchell.

    But what cannot be denied is that with a third European Cup victory in a row, Toulon have written their name in the annals of sporting history.

    It is an achievement that few thought would be possible seeing as it requires a collective drive and will to win that many teams lose on winning their first medal.

    The club’s high turnover of players has perhaps played into Laporte’s hands in this regard. Only seven players have been involved in all three finals, and as some greats have left the club, the ones replacing them have been driven to emulate their predecessors.

    There was certainly no feeling around Twickenham on Saturday night that this was the last time we would see Toulon on the biggest stage.

    The names on the teamsheet may well be different next season – Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams won’t be there – but whoever comes in will know they have a duty to fill their sizeable shoes.

    Harnessing that desire for success will be pivotal in going for a fantastic fourth.

    Mitchell made the most of World Cup audition

    As if playing for the biggest prize in European club rugby wasn’t enough, Saturday’s final was also seen as a World Cup audition for a couple of exiled players on both sides.

    And while Nick Abendanon – playing at the stadium where he won his second and last England cap almost eight years ago – gave a glimpse of both the fascinating and flawed aspects of his game and Steffon Armitage put in another impressive shift, it was Australia’s Mitchell who really grabbed his chance.

    Only playing because of an injury to Delon Armitage, the Wallabies winger picked the perfect line with around 10 minutes to go as he latched onto a perfect pass from Sebastien Tillous-Borde and danced around the Clermont defence.

    It was a passage of play to light up even the gloomiest days, and a timely reminder to Australia coach Michael Cheika of his supreme finishing abilities.

    Mitchell has 63 Test caps and thanks to his country relaxing their selection laws now looks odds-on to get the chance to add to those this autumn.

    Another Aussie who has been tipped to come in from the wilderness, his Toulon team-mate Matt Giteau, proved age has done nothing to diminish his elusive running as he broke the Clermont defensive line on more than one occasion.

    In truth, the Wallabies do not lack for creative outside-backs or wingers, but if Mitchell and Giteau do end up crashing their World Cup squad, then England and Wales’ chances of making the last eight become that bit harder.

    Clermont were killed by ill-discipline

    Speaking after the game, Clermont coach Franck Azema was keen to stress that his side had been “killed” by their opponents in red and black.

    There is certainly a case to be made for that, but in reality Clermont only had themselves to blame for not building a bigger first-half lead.

    Although the men in white kept Toulon penned into their own 22’ for much of the first 30 minutes, the times in which Laporte’s men were able to muster attacks invariably resulted in penalties.

    In fact after Wesley Fofana raced away for the game’s first try, there was an eight-minute spell in which they gave away three kickable penalties, not something you want to do with Leigh Halfpenny lining up against you.

    Halfpenny duly landed two of those three opportunities, drawing his side within two points of Clermont at a time when they had barely gained a foothold in the game.

    It would prove to be an important passage of play too as Abendanon’s rush of blood ultimately allowed Mathieu Bastareaud to give Toulon a half-time lead. If they had played with a little more discipline at the end of the first half, then they would not have been chasing the game in the second half as they had to.

    Finals are decided on such small margins, but Clermont need to accept their role in defeat. After all, they may well end up facing Toulon twice more before the end of the season.

    Gloucester’s season is far from over

    Friday night’s Challenge Cup final was an enthralling affair won in true Gloucester fashion, as from a comfortable position they almost let Edinburgh back in.

    For a club who had gone four years without any silverware, victory in Europe’s junior cup competition was celebrated long into the night. But there was also a realisation that the club’s work this season is far from done.

    Gloucester’s win at the Stoop has given them a chance to enter next season’s Champions Cup via the backdoor, and at a delicate time for the club on and off the field it is one they must take.

    European success validates the job done by David Humphreys and Laurie Fisher in their first year at Kingsholm, and will ensure the better players want to stick around.

    However, the club’s long-term prospects could hinge on making it onto Europe’s top table. Gloucester’s owners are currently looking for investment, and that endeavour would become infinitely easier if they were playing in the Champions Cup.

    Wasps’s imminent bond issue highlights the direction that the game is taking at the moment, and having sound financial backing is more important than ever.

    Gloucester already have the fan base, and they are one of only four clubs in the Premiership that made a profit last year. Sustained success on the pitch is the one piece of the jigsaw missing, and in that regard Friday night was very much a step in the right direction.

    First European season

    Whisper it, but the inaugural season of European rugby’s new dawn has gone quite well. The streamlined Champions Cup proved a success, ensuring more meaningful games in the earlier stages.

    The pool stages were crammed full of excitement with Bath’s destruction of Toulouse in the south of France, and Wasps’ charge to the quarter-finals too personal highlights.

    Even Saturday’s final passed off in a positive fashion, played against a backdrop of colour and friendly rivalry as the organisers got their wish and the attendance ticked well past the 50,000-mark.

    How many of those decked out in yellow and blue, or red and black at Twickenham were actually French is open for debate but that is not the point. The final was played amid a convivial, and at times raucous, atmosphere.

    That is not to say that the season did not pass off without incident. Scheduling the finals weekend so close to the semi-finals was a mistake, and wisely one that will not be repeated, while the attitude the French clubs took towards the Challenge Cup needs to be looked at.

    With a shortened season next year, thanks to the World Cup, winning the Challenge Cup will again gain automatic progression to the Champions Cup. That should keep its Top14 participants interested, but if it is to revert to this year’s model thereafter then something should be done.

    Seeing third-string sides compete in the pool stages does no-one any favours.

    Bonus Point

    It would be churlish choosing anything else this week other than Mitchell’s wonderful try. Sit back and enjoy…