Perpignan v Toulouse, Top 14 semi-final
Perpignan and Toulouse eye Paris finale
May 13, 2010
Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel steered his side to the top of the table during the regular reason © Getty Images
Perpignan and Toulouse go head-to-head at Montpellier's Stade de la Mosson on Friday night for a place in this season's Top 14 Final.
Defending champions Perpignan enter the clash having topped the table during the regular season and they were duly rewarded with a bye in the first round of the new look end-of-season play-offs. But that three-week break may be a cause for concern as they contemplate what is sure to be a bruising clash against a Toulouse side battle-hardened and riding a rich vein of form.
Toulouse are chasing glory on two fronts with a Heineken Cup Final date with Biarritz on May 22 and victory over Perpignan will ensure a return to the Stade de France the following week with the Bouclier de Brennus up for grabs.
These two giants of French rugby shared the spoils in their earlier clashes this season with Perpignan edging out Toulouse 17-15 at the Stade Aime Giral in August before falling 22-11 in the reverse fixture at the Stade Municipal in December. More recently, Perpignan found title rivals Toulon too good in their penultimate league clash but closed out their regular season with a morale-boosting victory over relegated Albi. Toulouse have also faltered in recent weeks but appear to have hit their stride at exactly the right time with victory over Leinster in their Heineken Cup semi-final followed by an equally impressive success against Castres last time out.
Despite an extended rest period, Perpignan enter the game with concerns over fly-half Nicolas Laharrague and fellow playmaker Gavin Hume but both were included in a provisional 27-man squad announced by coach Jacques Brunel. Young scrum-half Florian Cazenave has been drafted into to bolster the squad with David Mele another option at No.10. The in-form centre pairing of David Marty and Maxime Mermoz is also set to get another run but as ever the battle up front is set to decide what appears on paper to be a close contest.
Reflecting on his side's unprecedented three-week lay-off, captain Nicolas Mas admitted it had been tough on his side. "The first fifteen days have been difficult because we did not know who our opponent was going to be," said the French international. "But since Monday, we are more focused."
Toulouse coach Guy Noves, who has publically declared his priority is the Heineken Cup, has opted for sweeping changes with just one enforced with flanker Gregory Lamboley ruled out ater picking up a thigh injury against Castres. A more significant absentee is Jean-Baptiste Elissalde who steered his side to victory last time out but has since been sidelined by an abductor muscle injury. As a result David Skrela returns to fly-half where he will partner youngster Mathieu Bezy with Byron Kelleher rested.
France captain Thierry Dusautoir, William Servat and Vincent Clerc also make way with Finau Maka, Virgile Lacombe and Vilimoni Delasau filling the void at openside, hooker and wing respectively. Dusautoir drops to the bench where he is provisionally bracketed with Yann David. Also back in black will be winger Cédric Heymans, No.8 Shaun Sowerby, prop Census Johnston and fullback Clément Poitrenaud.
Centre Yannick Jauzion admitted this week that the gruelling season had taken its toll but it also brought unity. "On one hand, there is the fatigue and the other, there is the trust that we have accumulated with these back-to-back victories," said the ever-influential centre.
Toulouse's indifference to domestic silverware is no doubt a front as the prospect of a rare double is surely an enticing prospect. They may already be able to boast a Top 14/Heineken Cup double back in 1995-96 but a repeat would cement their place as one of the great sides. In contrast, Perpignan ended a 54-year wait for glory with victory over Clermont Auvergne in last year's finale and that win has no doubt whetted their appetite for more.
The key to this clash will be how each side responds to their vastly different preparation. Will the break ensure a refreshed and hungry Perpignan take to the field or will they struggle to match the pace and rhytm of a Toulouse side honed the hard way?
Perpignan: Jerome Porical; Farid Sid, David Marty, Maxime Mermoz, Christophe Manas; Nicholas Laharrague/ Gavine Hume, Nicolas Durand, Perry Freshwater, Guilhem Guirado, Nicolas Mas (capt), Olivier Olibeau, Robins Tchale-Watchou, Ovidiu Tonita, Henry Tuilagi, Jean-Pierre Pérez
Replacements: Marius Tincu, Jerome Schuster, Guillaume Vilaceca, Gregory Le Corvec, David Mélé/ Florian Cazenave, Jean-Philippe Grandclaude, Philip Burger, Kisi Pulu.
Toulouse: Clément Poitrenaud; Vilimoni Delasau, Florian Fritz, Yannick Jauzion, Cédric Heymans; David Skrela, Mathieu Bezy, Daan Human, Virgile Lacombe, Census Johnston, Yoann Maestri, Patricio Albacete, Jean Bouilhou, Finau Maka, Shaun Sowerby
Replacements: Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc, Thierry Dusautoir/Yann David, Romain Millo-Chluski, Jean-Baptiste Poux, Wiliam Servat, Benoit Lecouls, Louis Picamoles.
Referee: Romain Poite