Marseilles, Bordeaux, Lyon... it takes all of two seconds to reel off a list of alternative venues that might have given this eighth Heineken Cup final a stage worthy of the occasion. Unfortunately, the wild percussionists of Toulouse and even crazier supporters of Perpignan - known as les ultras, they wrap themselves in flags of crimson and gold in memory of the Duc de Foix, who smeared the blood of his dying son on his golden armour after a particularly lively battle at the turn of the 14th century - found themselves in Dublin, where they made the best of a bad job with nine-course lunches of the liquid variety. It is as well the tournament organisers do not have to answer to this Foix character.
A crowd of 28,600, a whole lot better than it might have been, meant the stadium was rather less than two-thirds full, and despite the best efforts of the various broadcasters, who screened the match live in some 40 countries, it showed.
"In our hearts, we know this game should have been played at a stadium closer to our own people," agreed Guy Noves, the Toulouse coach, whose theatrical performance on the touch-line was itself worthy of the widest possible audience. At one point, he almost came to blows with Michel Konieckiewicz, the fiery Perpignan hooker. Later, he shed tears of ecstasy as Yann Delaigue kicked the penalty that put the favourites out of range of their opponents.
It was the smallest final crowd since 1996, when Toulouse last won the European title, and it said rather a lot about the directors of European Rugby Cup Ltd (ERC) and their reluctance to accept what Basil Fawlty famously called "the bleeding obvious".
Seduced by the success of last season's showpiece, when 74,000 watched Leicester beat Munster at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, they awarded this one to Dublin without bothering to identify a fall-back position. Even after the quarter-finals, when the last of the well-supported English contenders were eliminated and the possibility of a first all-French final was raised, the administrators had a month and a half to find a get-out. On Saturday, they paid for their failure to think on their feet.
As did the Perpignan coach, Olivier Saisset, who very nearly lost his job before Christmas and may now find himself fire-fighting once again. The Catalans should have won the game, and probably would have done had Saisset withdrawn the hopelessly overwrought Konieckiewicz when it became clear that Perpignan's line-out was suffering from his presence. Once Marc Dal Maso, undeniably elderly but nobody's fool, took the field, Toulouse broke out in a cold sweat. But three-quarters of the game had already passed and most of the damage had been done.
Saisset's reluctance to make the tough call was uncharacteristic. A warpainted member of the ruthless Béziers pack of the 1970s, the old enforcer is as tough as they come; asked afterwards why his side had elected to play into a strong wind, his explanation was typically forthright: "It gave us the chance to find out what we were up against. It is only when you see the balls that you know your opponents are men."
This was the real Saisset, blunt as a lump hammer and unapologetically macho. But when decisive action was required on Perpignan's day of days, he went missing. Maybe he should join the ERC board.
Twice during the 40 minutes they spent with the gale in their faces, the outsiders declined penalty shots at goal and kicked for the corner. Twice, Konieckiewicz missed all three of his jumpers - the gigantic Jerome Thion, the athletic Rimas Alvarez Kairelis and the elastic Gregory Le Corvec - and lobbed the ball gently to a Toulouse forward. Towards the end of the half, Le Corvec gave up on his colleague and simply hared through the Toulouse line to charge down Delaigue's relieving kick. But Delaigue, blessed by the gods, swung an educated boot at the rebound, caught the ball and sent it spiralling 65 metres downfield, finding touch deep in Perpignan territory. The Catalans must have known then that they were in lose- lose land.
By this time, Chris White had disappeared from the fray with a tweaked hamstring, the kind of injury that tends to occur to 39-year-old referees when they try to keep pace with a wing as quick as Vincent Clerc over 70 metres. White had been chatting happily in French, but his replacement, Tony Spreadbury, is not among the world's more notable linguists and, as his stock phrases - "Mon Dieu" and "Une bière, s'il vous plaît" - were not especially appropriate to the moment, the onus fell on the English speakers, Trevor Brennan of Toulouse and Perpignan's Phil Murphy, to interpret decisions for their colleagues.
Brennan made the bigger impact of the two. It is perfectly possible that the Irishman did not lay a hand on the ball during his 67-minute tour of duty, but he certainly laid hands on his opponents. Someone had to front up against the might of the Perpignan pack, and that someone was the Dubliner cast aside by the Irish hierarchy.
"I don't think we have learned much of a technical nature from Trevor, but he has brought an altruistic dimension to our team," said Fabien Pelous, the Toulouse captain. "I was not aware this dimension existed. In physicality, mentality and spirit, he has shown us the way."
Having put his side on the front foot with tackling that bordered on the epic, Brennan was rewarded by Delaigue's outstanding marksmanship - four penalties in the first half, plus a superb conversion of Clerc's simple try, the direct result of one of Konieckiewicz's aberrations and a missed tackle by Manny Edmonds on the hard-running Yannick Jauzion.
Edmonds chipped away at the 19-point deficit after the interval, but Delaigue's killer penalty into the wind in the first minute of stoppage time rendered Perpignan's even later try, imaginatively created by Edmonds and scored by Pascal Bomati, an irrelevance.
Now the Heineken Cup is back in France, five years after Brive ceded it to Bath, it may stay there a while. Toulouse will be back next season as champions, along with Agen, Biarritz, Bourgoin, Stade Français and a Perpignan strengthened by the arrivals of Dan Luger, Daniel Herbert and Scott Robertson. It is a fearsomely strong sextet, by some distance the strongest the French have ever fielded. If ERC have any sense at all, they will book Stade de France, Stade Vélodrome or Parc des Princes without further ado.
Perpignan: Try Bomati. Penalties Edmonds 4. Toulouse: Try Clerc. Conversion Delaigue. Penalties Delaigue 5.
Perpignan: J-M Souverbie; P Bomati, P Giordani, C Manas, F Cermeno; M Edmonds, L Loustau; R Peillard, M Konieckiewicz (M Dal Maso. 59), N Mas (S D Besombes. 60), J Thion, R Alvarez Kairelis, G Le Corvec, B Goutta (capt), P Murphy (L Mallier. 65).
Toulouse: C Poitrenaud; E NTamack, X Garbajosa, Y Jauzion, V Clerc; Y Delaigue, F Michalak; B Lecouls, Y Bru (W Servat. 13), J-B Poux (C Soulette. 73), D Gerard, F Pelous (capt), T Brennan (F Maka. 67), J Bouilhou, C Labit.
Referee: C White (England). Replaced by A Spreadbury (England, 15).Reuse content