Toulon beat Clermont 24-18 at Twickenham on Saturday to claim their third successive European Cup title. JON CARDINELLI reports.
The result is a monumental one for Toulon. So many doubted their championship credentials following lacklustre performances in the quarter- and semi-finals. But in the game that mattered most, Toulon showed once again they had the physicality as well as the temperament to achieve the desired result.
Leigh Halfpenny kicked five from six attempts to finish with an individual tally of 14 points. But the real heroes in this contest were the men in the pack. It was thanks to their controlled aggression at the point of contact that Halfpenny enjoyed so many shots at goal, and that Toulon finished on the right side of the result.
Bakkies Botha played 47 minutes of this final, and made some strong contributions on both attack and defence. Botha has now won three European titles with Toulon, as well as three Vodacom Super Rugby titles with the Bulls. He is the only player to have achieved such success in both hemispheres.
But then Botha wasn't the ony South African who made an impact. Juan Smith got Toulon over the gainline with some powerful carries, and Bryan Habana enjoyed a busy game both on and off the ball. The result marked Smith and Habana's second-straight European title with the French giants. Habana has also won two Super Rugby titles with the Bulls.
Clermont started the game strongly, but failed to maintain their intensity levels. As a collective, they lacked the physical punch as well as the composure to challenge a Toulon side that boasted so many seasoned internationals.
Clermont led 6-0 at one stage, but would relinquish the lead by the end of the half. The goal-kicking of Halfpenny and then a bullocking run by centre Mathieu Basteraud on the half-time hooter allowed Toulon to take a 16-11 advantage into the shed.
A further penalty goal by Halfpenny after the break put Toulon in a commanding position at 19-11. Clermont attempted to fight back, and would score a brilliant individual try through fullback Nick Abendanon. However, Toulon would have the final and decisive say.
Drew Mitchell pushed his way past two defenders to score in the 70th minute. While credit should go to the Toulon forwards for playing the winger into that position, it took no small measure of strength and pace for Mitchell to finish.
The Toulon defence also proved its worth in this fixture. Clermont enjoyed a good period of attack, and were positioned deep in Toulon territory in the 75th minute. It was here that Basteraud made an important play at the breakdown to earn the penalty and allow Toulon to clear their lines.
Another assault by Clermont in the final minute of play was repelled by Toulon. Camille Lopez attempted to chip over the defence, but Habana read the play perfectly. That catch and subsequent mark by Habana brought an end to the game and confirmed Toulon's status as 2014-15 champions.
Clermont – Tries: Wesley Fofana, Nick Abendanon. Conversion: Camille Lopez. Penalties: Lopez (2).
Toulon – Tries: Mathieu Basteraud, Drew Mitchell. Conversions: Leigh Halfpenny. Penalties: Halfpenny (4).
Clermont – 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Napolioni Nalaga, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Morgan Parra, 8 Fritz Lee, 7 Damien Chouly (c), 6 Julien Bonnaire, 5 Sébastien Vahaamahina, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, 1 Vincent Debaty.
Subs: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Thomas Domingo, 18 Clément Ric, 19 Julien Pierre, 20 Julien Bardy, 21 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 22 Brock James, 23 Aurélien Rougerie.
Toulon – 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Juan Martin Hernandez, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Sébastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Chris Masoe, 7 Steffon Armitage, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman (c), 2 Guilhem Guirado, 1 Xavier Chiocci.
Subs: 16 Jean-Charles Orioli, 17 Alexandre Menini, 18 Levan Chilachava, 19 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 20 Virgile Bruni, 21 Rudi Wulf, 22 Frédéric Michalak, 23 Romain Taofifenua.
Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images