Top 14 Final Preview – Clermont vs Toulouse

Clermont face Toulouse in the final of the French championship on Saturday seeking a first win in their ninth such appearance, and a first in four such outings against this season’s beaten European/Heineken Cup finalists.

Clermont’s record of freezing in the crucial game could well be cast aside this season, the club having produced some scintillating running rugby based around a no-nonsense pack of forwards.

The central France outfit, captained by international back Aurelien Rougerie, finished atop the league in the regular season, but disappointingly for rugby fans everywhere failed to make it through to the knock-out phase of the European Cup.

However, Toulouse did qualify and with coach Guy Noves cleverly rotating his impressive squad – which he managed with a deft touch as he had to put up with season-ending injuries to flying winger Vincent Clerc and fullback Clement Poitrenaud – the club not only finished second to Clermont in the Top 14 but made it through to the final of the European Cup, where they were beaten 16-13 by Munster, who had topped Clermont’s pool on points difference.

Saturday’s final, with Toulouse chasing a 17th victory in their 25th outing, will offer up the mouth-watering prospect of two fantastic backlines going head-to-head.

Clermont have been marshalled superbly all season by Australian playmaker Brock James and starring an electric back three including the Top 14’s leading try scorer – Fijian Napolioni Nalaga.

Toulouse have been kicked into gear by the irrepressible Byron Kelleher, the former All Black scrum-half enjoying a new lease of life that has seen him nudge Jean-Baptiste Elissalde out to fly-half.

But for all the talk of exciting backs, Kelleher had a few words of warning about Clermont’s pack and their progress under Vern Cotter, a former assistant coach at Cantebury Crusaders.

“I know the discipline and experience that Cotter’s had with Bay of Plenty, and also gone on with the Crusaders,” said Kelleher.

“Vern brings a lot of experience to the Clermont team. He is a forwards-orientated coach, and an intelligent person.

“He brings to France that dimension of power with the forwards, trying to really squeeze things, to make sure that the opposition feel the pressure.

“And when the opposition feels pressured, they make silly mistakes.

He is very structured, and you can see Clermont are a very clinical team. So it’s all about winning the breakdown and the muscle of the game. It’s going to be an important factor in the final.”

Clermont back-row forward Sam Broomhall, a three-time capped All Black, said the physical side of the game had taken a backseat in preparations for the game.

“This week, it’s the mental attitude and strategy that will count.

As for the physical stuff, we’ve worked well on that all year,” said Broomhall.

“We know it’s this match that we have to turn all our efforts. The most important things are the head and the heart: if you’re okay mentally and you’re really up for it, that’s really going to help.”

Toulouse centre Yannick Jauzion, who could be pressed into action at No 10 should Elissalde fail to recover from a rib injury picked up in the 31-13 semi-final win over Stade Francais, said both his club and Clermont deserved to be in the final.

“Over the whole season, we’ve been the most consistent teams. We are the two teams who deserve to go to the final with regards to the game played and ambition,” the France international said.

After suffering two losses to Clermont during the regular season, Toulouse will have to have the correct “strategic approach” to beat Cotter’s side, Jauzion added.

“Clermont are a very solid side who have played a well-established gameplan over the last two years. To that you must add individuals capable of making a difference. All that points to Clermont being able to go all the way

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