PARIS – The French Top 14 season heads towards a tantalising climax on Saturday as swashbuckling Toulouse and imperious Clermont face off at the Stade de France in what has been described as the 'Dream Final'.
Toulouse finished top of the table at the end of the regular season after touching down a record amount of tries and collecting the highest number of league points in the competition's history, while also reaching the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup.
Clermont finished one place and 15 points below their rivals in the standings but scored more points during the 26-match campaign than any other side and were crowned European Challenge Cup champions in May.
Saturday's clash features the league's two best sides but Clermont's forwards coach Bernard Goutta, who lifted the title with Perpignan 10 years ago had a pragmatic approach to Saturday's match.
“Everyone is talking about a dream final. A dream final is one you win,” he said.
Finals week with the brother's 🔴⚫ pic.twitter.com/x8neMxnPDZ— cheslin kolbe (@Cheslin_Kolbe11) June 10, 2019
Toulouse head coach Ugo Mola laid down the gauntlet to his opponents, who are looking for a second league title in three seasons, but also put pressure on his own side to repeat their entertaining and successful rugby recent months.
“I hope we will be at the level we were during all the season. If Clermont beat us, they will have to beat a very good Toulouse team,” he said.
The most decorated side in French rugby will arrive in Paris for their first final in seven years after lifting the 'Bouclier de Brennus' in 2012, a far cry from the heyday of Guy Noves' trophy-laden 22-year reign.
During his tenure Noves won 10 league titles and four European crowns with Toulouse but the club was forced to re-build after Noves left to coach the French national team in 2015.
Mola took over and had to be patient in rediscovering the lost flair and attacking mindset centred around academy products which brought consistent silverware to the club under Noves.
Despite having experienced players like former All Blacks Jerome Kaino and Charlie Faumuina in his squad Mola pointed towards wide-eyed players such as Thomas Ramos, Romain Ntamack and Peato Mauvaka, who all came through the ranks at the Stade Ernest-Wallon.
“We have young players on show, I hope they stand-up. We're a club which is a little bit different,” Mola said.
The Michelin men march on
Backed by tyre manufacturer Michelin, Clermont's approach began much more recently after finishing in a disappointing ninth place last year and missing out on the play offs.
Goutta and head coach Franck Azema can call upon experienced internationals in New Zealand's George Moala and Isaia Toeava and Scotland scrum-half Greig Laidlaw.
“It's been 11-and-a-half months in which we have been preparing for this final. We started the season to play in the final,” Goutta said.
They have faced each other twice this term, Toulouse winning a blockbuster encounter 47-44 in mid-April.
The 10-try feast saw the likes of South Africa's Cheslin Kolbe and Fiji's Peceli Yato score and France winger Damian Penaud dot down for a hat-trick in the game of the season.
If this Saturday's final is half the tie from earlier in the year and if the giants of the Top 14 perform at 50 percent of their potential then fans' dreams could well become a reality.
Agence France-Presse (AFP)