Clermont favourites but Toulon will try to prey on weaknesses

What do Stefforn Armitage, Vincent Debaty, Joe Van Niekerk, Julien Pierre, Gethin Jenkins, Maxime Mermoz, David Skrela, Freddie Michalak and Regan Kings, among others, all have in common?

None of them will be in either starting XV when Clermont Auvergne face Toulon in the Heineken Cup Final at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. That is how strong both of these sides are.

Toulon’s reputation as a side with a stellar cast list is well worn, however Clermont are hardly short of a star or two in their own side, the return of club captain Aurelien Rougerie from injury only adding to their quality.

Despite the strengths of both these sides though, Clermont go in as the favourites for the title, they topped the French Top 14 ahead of Toulon (just) and have looked like the best side in Europe throughout this year’s Heineken Cup.

They boast an awesome blend of power and subtlety both the forwards and the backs, exemplified best perhaps by Nathan Hines who continues to defy age with his eye catching mix of bloody minded aggression and delightful handling.

In the backline Wesley Fofana is the leading light, quite some achievement when you consider the achievements of Sivivatu and Nalaga this season, his performances have only served to highlight just how absurd it was that France wasted him out on the wing for most of the season.

Despite that though, they do possess weaknesses, they are just rarely revealed. Their back row is perhaps not quite as good as the rest of their team, though it is all relative, and against a Toulon side that boasts Masoe, Rossouw and Lobbe, with Armitage and Van Niekerk waiting in reserve, that could be highlighted.

Two more worrying areas for them though are the areas that nearly proved to be their undoing against Munster in the semi final, a game they should have had wrapped up by half time but ended up almost blowing.

The first was the inclination of their wingers to push high up into the line of defence, leaving them exposed in behind. In Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau Toulon possess two players that can ruthlessly exploit that weakness.

The second was a mental fragility, Clermont were visibly panicked in the closing stages of the semi final and have been perennial fallers at the final in Europe and in the Top 14 over the last few years.

Fly half Brock James has been a particularly regular victim of this ailment and it will be none to comforting for him to see the face of Jonny Wilkinson opposite him, one of the most mentally tough players that there is.

So for Toulon that will be the aim, despite their stunning cast list they will know that Clermont are simply a better side than them at the moment and that if they take them on in an open contest then Leinster’s vanquishers in the group stages will walk all over them.

However, draw Clermont into a tight, nitty gritty affair then Toulon will strongly fancy their chances. Wilkinson is in supreme goal kicking form and Toulon will feel that their pack can more than match the Clermont pack for power in a close battle.

One thing is for sure, it promises to be one almighty battle of power that could swing either way, the more the game moves towards skill, the more you have to fancy Clermont.

Verdict:

Clermont by less than 10.

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