Gatland stays wary as Toulouse hold power in reserve

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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland was happy to provide details of Wasps' penultimate team run ahead of tomorrow's Heineken Cup final with Toulouse - the most formidable of all combatants in the European arena and the current holders of the trophy.

Warren Gatland was happy to provide details of Wasps' penultimate team run ahead of tomorrow's Heineken Cup final with Toulouse - the most formidable of all combatants in the European arena and the current holders of the trophy.

"We certainly had some fun," said the Londoners' director of rugby, a former All Black hooker well versed in the frenzies and furies of the high-pressure training session. "There was some bitching, some backbiting and plenty of fighting. I think the players are just about ready for this one."

By contrast, Guy Novès was playing his cards so close to his chest they were practically concealed inside his sweatshirt. The Toulouse coach just about managed to keep a straight face as he named the injured Frédéric Michalak, his lightweight genius of an attacking outside-half, at scrum-half and consigned two current internationals, Vincent Clerc and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, to the bench. And even though the smile cracked open when he was asked whether he might indulge in a little late tinkering, Novès stuck firmly to his guns.

"We travelled here with 24 players, just to be safe, but all our little problems seem to have vanished suddenly," he said. "It must be the magic of the European Cup."

Gatland, for one, did not believe a word of it. "We know Michalak didn't train on Wednesday, so we're pretty surprised he's been named ahead of Elissalde," he said. "I didn't expect them to pick Emile Ntamack on the wing, either. Let's see who lines up at kick-off time."

Mind games have been a regular feature of Heineken Cup finals down the years: when Leicester played Munster in Cardiff two seasons ago, both managements went to embarrassingly elaborate lengths to conceal their starting combinations. Sometimes, coaches use the red-herring technique just for the hell of it, but on this occasion, there was method in Novès' madness. Michalak has indeed been struggling for fitness, as have his fellow half-backs, Elissalde and Yann Delaigue. As Wasps are armed with Paul Volley, the aggressive openside flanker directly responsible for Ronan O'Gara's early departure from Lansdowne Road during last month's epic semi-final with Munster, the Frenchmen are fully justified in muddying the waters.

By naming Ntamack, a veteran of Toulouse's first Heineken Cup victory in 1996, on the right flank, Novès effectively informed Tom Voyce, the free-scoring Wasp whose brilliance over the last month has earned him a place on England's summer tour, that he can expect an ultra-physical examination from a bigger, stronger opponent. By switching suddenly to Clerc, much smaller and infinitely quicker, Novès might just catch Voyce under-prepared.

In a sense, Gatland had it easier than his opposite number when it came to selection. Once Fraser Waters, the form centre in the Premiership, passed a fitness test, the Wasps team selected itself. Novès had more decisions to make, for the simple reason that the Toulouse squad has a depth of quality unmatched by any club in the northern hemisphere. One glance at their bench reinforces the point: the replacements include experienced French internationals in Clerc, Elissalde and Yannick Bru, plus a former All Black No 8 in Isitolo Maka.

Wasps may fear that bench as much, if not more, than the run-on team. Maka, in particular, is a 20-minute specialist; a 19st-plus tank of a loose forward, he scored the crucial try in his club's semi-final victory over Biarritz in Bordeaux and frequently carries the ball twice as far as any of his colleagues, in no more than a quarter of the time.

"I know of international teams who would kill for a bench of that quality," Gatland said. "I want us to be in control of this thing long before they start making substitutions."

By selecting Trevor Brennan, their Irish import, ahead of David Gérard in the second row, Toulouse may have compromised themselves at the line-out. There again, their all-international front row will back themselves to squeeze the pips from their opposite numbers and minimise Trevor Leota's rampaging contribution around the field. A golden 20 minutes could see Wasps, the fittest side in England, win by a dozen points. If the game goes to the wire, Delaigue or Elissalde might win it with their kicking. You pays your money, and you takes your choice.

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