Top 14 Orange Comment
The perfect finale
June 6, 2012
Expect Mourad Boudjellal to be the centre of attention in one way or another come Saturday © Getty Images
I shall confess to a bit of self-interest here. Saturday's Top 14 final between Toulouse and Toulon works well. I've always had a soft spot for semi-final losers Clermont Auvergne and the way they play the game. A more revered rugby figure than I, Will Greenwood, confesses frequently to his admiration of the former Montferrand and referring to it as his "guilty pleasure". I'm in good company. But for all that, there's a self-interested inner self that's content with having seen Clermont get beaten on Sunday. You see, for a British television audience there can be no better match-up for the French Championship final than Toulouse against Toulon.
Toulouse, the most successful club in French and European history, against a club whose success is built on the chequebook of a madcap comic book billionaire who has now rolled out the red and black carpet in the old Mediterranean naval town for three much-loved Englishmen. Those riches have, in the past, been spent on the likes of George Gregan, Tana Umaga and George Smith.
This year, though, it's three of our own who have led the way - talisman Jonny Wilkinson; 38-year-old Wasps hero Simon Shaw; and the Top 14 player of the season, Steffon Armitage. All three, fitness permitting, will start the final. A fourth Premiership player, Eifion Roberts, who is on his way back to Sale after next week, may be there too if the knock he took on Sunday recovers in time.
Toulon demonstrated remarkable resilience to hold off Clermont on Sunday. The stage appeared to have been set for the men from volcano country to rock into Toulouse and rip Toulon to pieces. It is Clermont's centenary season and, with the occasion having been given special resonance by their near miss in the Heineken Cup semi-final, Bonnaire, Hines, Domingo and co. seemed destined to book Clermont their fifth trip to the Paris final in six years.
Alas, it didn't work out that way because with Jonny Wilkinson having spent every daylight hour on the practice pitch last week kicking, kicking and kicking again until the sure touch which has characterised his game for more than a decade, but which deserted him in the barrage round against Racing Metro, had returned, Clermont were never going to prevail in a kicking contest. And that is what it became with Toulon's defence holding firm and Clermont, in all honesty, never really looking like crossing the try line.
Talking of which, and if there is a wish ahead of the final, it is that both teams don't allow it to become a penalty shoot-out. Three hours of semi-final action in Toulouse failed to produce a single try. The other major final this season which has featured two French clubs was also barren of tries. That was last month's Amlin Challenge Cup final between winners Biarritz and Toulon and it had critics justly dubbing it a bore-fest. For those of us who love our French rugby we can well do without another.
But whatever we say about events on the pitch there can be no questioning the capacity for entertainment of at least two of those who will be operating on the periphery of Saturday's showpiece.
Top of the list is Toulon manager Bernard Laporte who, lest we forget, spent his time between resigning his position as national coach and making his return to rugby in high political office. Sadly, whatever skills of mediation and diplomacy Laporte acquired while sports minster have long since deserted him because ever since he took the Toulon job both he and owner Mourad Boudjellal have been embroiled in running battles with officialdom.
Boudjellal has free run of the Stade de France this Saturday, something he hasn't had anywhere in the Top 14 since the beginning of January when, following the narrow league defeat at Clermont, he claimed: "I had my first refereeing sodomy in the (2010) semi-final against Clermont. I've just had my second tonight. It appeared to hurt the first time but it was just as bad this time. We will review the images not on Youtube but on YouPorn."
It was an outburst which saw him banned from the dressing-room and pitchside on match days for 130 days.
Laporte too has been sanctioned for comments about referees though even that suspension didn't deter him from having a pop at the league's disciplinary panel last week when Castres lock Joe Tekori was allowed to play in Saturday's semi-final against Toulouse despite having been sent off in the previous weekend's barrage tie. "If he'd been playing for Toulon he'd have got four months," Laporte lamented.
Laporte's prime target this year has been referee Romain Poite who he attacked verbally - not once, but twice - following games in March. In one heated exchange Laporte told Poite he is "un gros con" which is a classic French insult and one which doesn't need translation. Suffice it to say, it was on Laporte's part, neither polite nor politic.
In hindsight, even Laporte may admit that in venting his anger on Poite he chose the wrong man.
And why? Firstly, Poite is not only a well-respected official but also a member of the IRB's elite panel of referees. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly,Poite is to take charge of Saturday's final.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
This article first appeared in The Independent on May 15, visit http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/