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Toulon back to where it all began

A little over two years and seven months to the day, Bernard Laporte returns to the scene of a pivotal crowning moment.

THE REIGNING EUROPEAN champions are in Dublin today, back where their run of imperious form in the tournament began two and a half years ago.

In hindsight, the inevitability of Toulon’s ascension to the throne takes hold rather quickly. Sitting in the stands of the Aviva Stadium that early summer’s day watching it live, the hope and expectation that Clermont would instead take a deserved title was easy to get caught up in.

General view of the Aviva Stadium big screen Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Clermont had knocked Munster (semi-final) and Leinster (in the pool stage) out on the way to the Dublin decider. Plus, they brought the Joe Schmidt connection, an implicit promise that they would play entertaining rugby and also the allure of a bridesmaid finally ready to tie the knot on a trophy.

Even then, Toulon were the big bad wolves, though they weren’t unfamiliar with runners-up medals themselves. When they missed out on the Heineken Cup 2011-12 season, their fourth season after promotion from Pro D2, RCT went all the way to two finals; only to lose both the Challenge Cup and Top 14 to Biarritz and Toulouse respectively.

Perhaps those experiences, on top of the immensely talented and experienced internationals they were recruiting, helped install the collective big-game know-how within the setup, preparing them for that crowning moment in Dublin.

elon Armitage scores a try Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The road to the 2012 final was like a journey by steamroller for Toulon.

That iconic/hateful (depending on your allegiance)  ’wave goodbye’ try finish from Delon Armitage deserved to be celebrated. Toulon had gone three games without a try, relying on the boot of Jonny Wilkinson to guide them past Leicester and Saracens and then through the first hour of the final until Armitage broke clear and put them ahead for the first time.

steal delon

There were 14 minutes left in the game, they stayed on top through that and ever since.

Every season, every recruitment filled off-season that has passed since has seen Toulon expand their horizons. Wilkinson retired a year later and because he was off the scene, they could no longer afford to rely on his unerring goal-kicking.

When they met Clermont in last season’s final, it was as if the two no longer had anything in common. Clermont were the same as ever, plagued by second-place syndrome, Toulon just showed that they are getting better and better at refusing to panic.

The success was built on foundations created by the brilliance of Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Chris Masoe, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Bakkies Botha and subsequently Ali Williams.

Unnatural

The back-line of the class of 2013, featuring Rudi Wulf and Alexis Palisson, were no slouches. But the unnatural progression that brought Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell into the team in their place adds a much-improved wide threat.

In the back row, Steffon Armitage has now made himself the most revered breakdown technician in European rugby, another improvement on the 2013 edition where Danie Russoouw started and was replaced by Joe van Niekerk before the younger, heavier Armitage was called on to help protect the one-point lead for 10 minutes in the Aviva Stadium.

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Toulon fans Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Today, two years, seven months and a day on from 18 May 2013, Toulon are are back.

They’re not so much a steamroller anymore as a tank, though the quest for the unprecedented fourth consecutive title has started with a cough and splutter after defeats to Wasps and a scrap against Leinster

That said, Laporte has displayed the uncanny knack of making his team improve as the weeks go on in this tournament. Throw Ma’a Nonu back into the mix in between Giteau and Mathieu Bastareaud and they are again the big bad wolf out to spoil it for the home favoured crowd.

Leinster v Toulon (5.15pm, Sky Sports):

Leinster:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Dave Kearney
13. Ben Te’o
12. Luke Fitzgerald
11. Isa Nacewa (captain)
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Eoin Reddan

1. Jack McGrath
2. Richardt Strauss
3. Mike Ross
4. Devin Toner
5. Mike McCarthy
6. Rhys Ruddock
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jamie Heaslip

Replacements:

16. Sean Cronin
17. Cian Healy
18. Marty Moore
19. Tom Denton
20. Jordi Murphy
21. Nick McCarthy
22. Ian Madigan
23. Zane Kirchner

Toulon:

15. Delon Armitage
14. Bryan Habana
13. Mathieu Bastareaud
12. Ma’a Nonu
11. Drew Mitchell
10. Matt Giteau (captain)
9. Eric Escande

1. Florian Fresia
2. Guilhem Guirado
3. Matt Stevens
4. Jocelino Suta
5. Romain Taofifenua
6. Juan Smith
7. Steffon Armitage
8. Duane Vermeulen

Replacements:

16. Anthony Etrillard
17. Xavier Chiocci
18. Levan Chilachava
19. Mamuka Gorgodze
20. Juan Fernandez Lobbe
21. Tom Taylor
22. Sebastien Tillous-Borde
23. Konstantine Mikautadze

 

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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