When Toulon’s wealthy owner Mourad Boudjellal began assembling a who’s who of rugby for his proud port-town club on the Côte d’Azur a few years ago it was not to ensure himself the finest autograph collection on the planet.
His squadron of thirtysomethings spearheaded by Jonny Wilkinson had the brilliant nous to make Clermont pay for over confidence in the second half of this first Heineken Cup final for both clubs and take a barely believable victory in Dublin.
Clermont were strolling at 15-6 up going into the final quarter when Wilkinson – who had been culpable in both of the Massif Central mob’s tries – kicked a penalty followed by the conversion of the deciding try after 63 minutes. Wesley Fofana was hauled down by Bakkies Botha and Joe van Niekerk and Juan Fernandez Lobbe leapt in with typical and peerless intuition to flip the ball away to Delon Armitage, who ran the try in, his tongue sticking out in premature celebration. The 30-metre conversion on the diagonal was no problem to Wilkinson, as England’s most beloved rugby son who turns 34 next Saturday had not missed a kick throughout. Frantic Clermont attacking brought only a charged down drop by David Skrela and a last, tired pass knocked on out wide.
Toulon had knocked out Leicester and Saracens without scoring a try in previous rounds but Clermont were a different kettle of bouillabaisse.
Wilkinson, seeking a first club title since he and Newcastle won the Tetley’s Bitter Cup in 2001, got going with a clattering as he leaped to catch the kick-off, a full-on tackle on Aurélien Rougerie (one of many outsized backs on view) and a failed touch-finder with his right foot. The one-time poster boy for The Lancet has found the south of France a place of healing and this was his 102nd start in four seasons for Toulon.
What they most wanted though was a trophy in return for all Boudjellal’s lavish spending on men he believed had the character to worry about more than just the chequebook. In the fourth all-French final of the Heineken Cup the clash of styles was evident from the off; Toulon running colosusses like Andy Sheridan – one of eight Britons in the two cosmopolitan squads – round the corners whereas Clermont attempted to spring their runners Fofana and company free like corks from a Champagne bottle.
Clermont were always the likeliest to score a try but they were made to wait. The scoreline of 3-3 at half-time – Morgan Parra’s 45-metre penalty after three minutes equalised by Wilkinson 10 minutes later for Gerhard Vosloo not rolling away – was testament to Toulon shutting down half a dozen half-breaks. There was also the tightest of calls against Wilkinson’s opposite number, Brock James, who was just over the dead ball line when he reached his own chip over the heads of Chris Masoe and Juan Fernandez Lobbe; this after a turnover on Toulon’s left as Delon Armitage led a breakout.
James suffered un-Wilkinsonian agonies in this city three years ago when he missed four drops at goal and gave up trying in a one-point losing quarter-final against Leinster. Mention of whom raises the subject of the wrangles this competition is going through. The European Rugby Cup Ltd secretariat, based just up the road in St Stephen’s Green, have been busy pumping out figures emphasising the squillions of euros being made by the Dublin economy from staging this final and the Amlin Challenge cup one that Leinster (the Heineken holders who were knocked out of the main event by Clermont) won on Friday. It will be Paris’s turn next May and then … what? The 2014-15 schedule is up the air; what we do know is the top six seeds for next season’s Heineken Cup, will be three from Ireland, three from France.
But the Englishmen in Toulon’s ranks, at least, were about to have their day. This first part of a possible European-domestic double header – Clermont and Toulon could meet again in the Paris final of the Top 14 on Saturday week – livened up with Clermont’s tries in the opening seven minutes of the second half, either side of Wilkinson’s second penalty. First the fly-half, captaining Toulon, was tackled and stripped of possession by Sitiveni Sivivatu, allowing James and Rougerie to fox Danie Rossouw and the rashly rushing wing Alexis Palisson, with Napolioni Nalaga free to run into the left corner. Then James worked a lovely move off a ruck, right to left, chipping behind Wilkinson and Mathieu Bastareaud for Rougerie to run on, brush Wilkinson aside and return a pass inside for James to score and Parra to add the conversion: 15-6.
What seemed a procession was soon transformed by Wilkinson’s third penalty and Armitage’s try. Far from Toulon weakening it was Clermont’s main men Rougerie, James and Parra who withdrew. Ti’i Paulo was harshly judged to have knocked on in one charge, Skrela – on for James – was in no good position for his drop and Sivivatu, of all people as the most dangerous Clermont back, delivered the faulty pass to Paulo that finished his side off.
Clermont Auvergne: L Byrne; S Sivivatu, A Rougerie (capt, R King, 68), W Fofana, N Nalaga; B James (D Skrela, 73), M Parra (L Radoslavjevic, 71); T Domingo (V Debaty, 66), B Kayser (T Paulo, 66), D Zirakashvili (C Ric, 73), J Cudmore, N Hines, J Bonnaire, D Chouly, G Vosloo (J Bardy, 68).
Toulon: D Armitage, A Palisson, M Bastareaud, M Giteau, R Wulf; J Wilkinson (capt), S Tillous-Borde (F Michalak, 51); A Sheridan (G Jenkins, 61), S Bruno (J-C Orioli, 51), C Hayman, B Botha (J Suta,68), N Kennedy, D Rossouw (J van Niekerk, 51), C Masoe (S Armitage, 68), J Fernandez Lobbe.
Referee: A Rolland (Ireland).