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May 31, 2011
Rupeni Caucaunibuca scored two tries as Toulouse beat Clermont Auvergne in the first semi-final © Getty Images
Saturday's French Championship final will see ancient rivals Toulouse and Montpellier go head to head in what some pundits are already calling 'The battle of Languedoc'.
Whilst not quite the battle for Middle Earth, Toulouse and Montpellier, centuries old adversaries for the seat of capital to the ancient province of Languedoc, will bring their substantial off-field rivalry to the Stade de France on Saturday.
The province of Languedoc is no longer with us of course, having been split into pieces after the French revolution in order to curb the power of Toulouse politically. But despite the French state's best attempts, tradition in this part of the world has been slow to die away. This weekend's match-up will still have plenty of sizzle even though on the pitch, the rivalry between the two sides is barely out of the kindergarten.
Toulouse and Montpellier have sparred for years in association football and that modern European curiosity, handball, but Montpellier Herault Rugby Club is a more recent invention, having been founded in 1986. Saturday will be their first final, a fact that seems to become even more foreboding when you look at Toulouse's 17 title wins from 25 final appearances.
Guy Noves, the wily old veteran that he is however, wasn't biting when asked about the dominance his side have, in the record books at the very least.
"I'm not going to answer that type of question," he told Montpellier paper Midi Libre. "We'll prepare for this match as we would prepare for any final. And in preparing for a final you try not to say anything stupid. The guys will do the battling on the pitch so I don't see the point of doing either before or after."
It's hard to reconcile just how improved Montpellier have been this season. Under the stewardship of Fabien Galthie and Eric Bechu, Montpellier have simply been transformed from the side that spent much of the previous season threatened by relegation. Galthie's side instead spent nearly the entire season in the top six, only to drop out on the penultimate round thanks to some iffy spring form.
Since then it's been a roller coaster ride for followers of the Mediterranean side, winning games that looked to be beyond them at stages. The 27-3 bonus point win over Toulon sent them back into the playoff places on the final day of the season but it was the sensational 17-18 win at Castres that booked their spot in the semi-final. There were more theatrics last weekend when a last minute penalty saw them beat Racing Metro 25-26, further strengthening the belief that it could be their year.
"It's a pity we made errors that brought them back into the game," scrumhalf Julien Thomas told l'Equipe. "But we've a big heart and a good mind set. We've won matches this season because of this and it's why we won the semi-final. We let go of nothing. We were down to 14 twice and we had to stick together and show our motivation.
"At the moment we're walking on cloud 9. We'll have to come back down to earth to prepare for Toulouse."
They received the biggest bump back to reality on Sunday morning when it was revealed that skipper and France international Fulgence Ouedraogo is likely to miss the final due to a fractured bone in his hand.
Montpellier have a smaller squad than Toulouse and the fact that they played an extra game to get to the semi-final would suggest that it will be the European Champions who will the fresher, and stronger after 60 minutes, with plenty of impact off the bench.
Toulouse have so much experience and so much depth that it's difficult to look beyond them. Given the David versus Goliath feel to this final, a sense of complacency could be the greatest threat to Toulouse yet you just feel that with Noves around, Toulouse are nothing, if supremely focused.
"Before a game, there is never a favourite, never mind before a final," Toulouse second row Patrico Albacete told Midi Olympique on Monday. "After seeing the last few performances of Montpellier, I could say we're a long way from winning this. Les Montpelliérains have proven all season long that they deserve their place so it will be 50-50. Really."
Toulouse's 26-9 defeat of Clermont Auvergne was in reality far easier than they would have anticipated. The 2009-10 title-winning Clermont side has been in hiding for much of the season and Friday night's game once again stressed what a huge loss Joe Schmidt has been to Vern Cotter and the Clermont management team.
Looking at the card, Toulouse and Montpellier have the look of two champions boxers but at different weights. Montpellier have great coaches, talent and oodles of self-belief but with a lightweight bench and without their talismanic captain, Saturday's trip to the Stade de France could be a game too far.
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