Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 6°C
# big issues
Toulon's growing dominance and more Champions Cup talking points
Drew Mitchell’s second-half try was sublime, while both sides now look to the Top 14.

TOULON BEAT CLERMONT 24-18 in the Champions Cup final at Twickenham this afternoon.

Three in a row

It’s a remarkable achievement in any sport. Toulon secured their third top-tier European trophy in a row, adding a first Champions Cup to two Heineken Cups in the last two years.

Carl Hayman with the Champions Cup James Crombie / INPHO Toulon lift the first-ever Champions Cup. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Mourad Boudjellal has sunk his heart into the club and recruited intelligently, bringing in proven winners who make a difference in the big games. That exact attribute stood out clearly in Twickenham as Toulon showed composure and incision at exactly the right moments.

With the likes of Samu Manoa, Quade Cooper, Ma’a Nonu, Salesi Ma’afu, and Napolioni Nalaga already confirmed as signings for next season, it’s likely that Toulon’s strength will only grow.

Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha are retiring, while Chris Masoe is expected to join Racing Métro in the summer, but Boudjellal will already be thinking of title number four next season.

The nearly men

As ever, Clermont have been thrilling to watch all season and again in this final they contributed some beautiful rugby. They attempted to bring their pace and daring to this encounter, but Toulon put on a major squeeze for the majority of the second half.

Wesley Fofana scores a try Dan Sheridan / INPHO A strong start gave Clermont hope. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Clermont have now lost two finals and two semi-finals in Europe in the last four seasons and the old failings in terms of decision-making and execution under pressure were apparent intermittently in London.

Missed tackles, poor options in their kicking game at vital moments in the game and some disciplinary shortcomings in the first half all contributed. While Toulon seemed to grow in steel as the final whistle approached, Clermont appeared increasingly panicked.

Mitchell’s finish

In terms of big players producing big moments, we need look no further than Drew Mitchell’s excellent second-half try that went some way towards clinching the game for Toulon.

Drew Mitchell scores a try Dan Sheridan / INPHO Mitchell finishes his superb try. Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

The 31-year-old earned his handsome salary in one powerful attacking thrust, beating no less than six defenders on his way to the tryline. The tackling was undeniably poor, but Mitchell’s dynamism and balance made it so.

In a similar vein, Ali Williams delivered his best performance of the season on the momentous occasion, while the likes of Steffon Armitage and Mathieu Bastareaud provided class.

Boudjellal buys these players to produce on days exactly like these and once again he got value for money.

Composure close to the half

Nick Abendanon demonstrated his sublime attacking talent for his score in the second half, dinking a delicate chip into the space behind Toulon’s slow-reacting defence.

Nick Abendanon runs in to score his side's second James Crombie / INPHO Abendanon scored a sublime try. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

The Englishman was a key player in ensuring that an all-French final in London was a magnificent spectacle, but he will rue his decision to kick the ball away as half time approached.

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The pill flew directly into Masoe’s hands and the Toulon number eight then started the counter-attack that ended with Bastareaud powering over the line from close-range to give the holders a 16-11 lead at the break.

As at other points, Clermont just lacked a hint of composure and leadership in those ‘championship minutes’.

Picking up for le bouclier

Toulon have a heavy night ahead of them, but the Top 14 resumes next weekend with leaders Toulon welcoming Castres to Stade Mayol and Clermont travelling to Bernard Jackman’s Grenoble.

Toulon lift the Champions Cup Trophy Billy Stickland / INPHO Toulon can win another trophy this season. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Bernard Laporte’s men lead the league by four points, with Clermont in second, and it may be that this pair meet again in the final of the French league.

With that in mind, Franck Azéma and Jono Gibbes will be eager to ensure that Clermont don’t spend too long wallowing in the disappointment of coming short in Europe once again.

Clermont haven’t won a Top 14 title since 2010, back when Joe Schmidt was with the club, so there is much still to be played for this season. How cruel it would be for Toulon to deny ASM again in that final.

A repeat of last season’s double beckons for Toulon, a dominant force.

There’s an unbelievable crowd watching the Champions Cup final in Clermont

A host of Irish players were involved in today’s Championship play-offs

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