Guy Noves, a very decent French wing of the late 1970s and an even better coach of a Toulouse outfit so powerful that they boast a trophy cupboard the size of the Midi-Pyrenees, knows a thing or two about this daft old game. He is aware that he presides over the grandest and most consistently successful set-up in Europe, that he has a squad second to none in terms of imagination and extravagance, and that on a good day, his side are 25 points better than any club team in the world. There are, however, other things that leave him utterly bewildered.
Foremost among these is his team's record in the Heineken Cup. "We won the first tournament, and it has taken us seven years to return to the final," Noves said yesterday, with a shake of the head that rendered the obvious follow-up question wholly redundant. Toulouse can claim a degree of misfortune - their 2001-02 campaign, for instance, was undermined by a catastrophic chemical explosion that wrecked their stadium, which forced them to play their first two pool matches away from home and unhinged them both mentally and emotionally. But for all the excuses, the coach accepts that his players have continually underperformed in this most demanding of competitions.
Down the years, they have somehow leaked 77 points against a disbelieving Wasps side in Shepherd's Bush, reacted pathetically to freezing conditions on semi-final day at Leicester, lost another semi-final on home soil against Brive when they looked perfectly capable of running the champions off their feet, thrown away a quarter-final against Ulster in Belfast, fallen apart under pressure in a last-four tie with Munster and lost home and away to a Saracens team past its best. In short, they have earned themselves a thoroughly deserved reputation as cock-up artists of the first rank.
And while they start this afternoon's first all-French final as favourites, there is a sneaking suspicion, not least among the Toulouse players themselves, that they are destined to fall flat on their superior derrieres once again. Some obvious first-choice players are absent through injury - Nicolas Jeanjean, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Patrice Collazo will all be missed - and to make matters even more fraught, they are up against a side who understand precisely what it will take to overcome the odds.
Perpignan, who rather fancy playing the artisan role opposite the acknowledged aristocrats of French rugby, have already beaten Toulouse this season - 32-17 in a domestic championship match at Stade Aime-Giral - and have achieved some famous victories over the last couple of months. They saw off Agen, one of the hottest acts in Europe, only a couple of weeks ago, and their triumphs on the road during the Heineken knock-out stage have transformed the way they think about themselves. "The quarter-final win at Llanelli in April was the turning point, in that it finally convinced us of our ability to win a big game away from home," explained Phil Murphy, the Canadian No 8, this week.
While Toulouse threatened to demolish both Northampton and Munster in sudden-death ties but ended up scrabbling around for points in the final quarters of both games, Perpignan built on their watershed performance at Stradey Park and brought their new-found belief to Lansdowne Road for a semi-final with the home-town boys of Leinster. Few gave them a snowball's chance in hell, but the big players - Murphy, Bernard Goutta, Gregory Le Corvec, Marc Dal Maso, Rimas Alvarez Kairelis, Manny Edmonds - turned in performances worthy of the esteem in which they are held by the rugby aficionados of Catalonia. Having left Brian O'Driscoll crying in his beer, they are unlikely to fear the devils from just up the road.
Their captain, the unfathomably strong Goutta, suggested as much after arriving at Lansdowne Road to give the pitch the once-over. "We know we are here in Dublin, because we won recently in a match we were expected to lose," he said. "The last time we were involved in such an occasion, in the final of the French Championship in 1998, we were satisfied just to be there. So we lost. We will not make such a mistake this time, I think. We will have many supporters, and I hope the people of Dublin will support us too. I believe they enjoyed the rugby we played against Leinster in the last round."
Um, probably not, Bernard. The semi-final was a calamitous day for the Leinster province, and it left the locals with better things to think about than the quality of Perpignan's performance. But if the Catalans find their way past more gifted, more familiar but less reliable opponents this afternoon, they will indeed be the toast of Temple Bar. For a night, at least.Reuse content