Paris - Wallabies Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell are amongst
the "last of the Mohicans" looking to sign off their Toulon careers
with one more trophy as the Top 14 comes to a climax in Paris on Sunday.
In-form Clermont, the perennial chokers, are all that stands
between the Aussie duo and South Africa's Juanne Smith, and a glorious swansong
in the south of France.
Giteau is heading off to play in Japan, while Mitchell and
Smith are retiring, with Argentina's Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe's future
uncertain as he hasn't been offered a new contract.
It means the golden generation of Toulon's global stars that
won three straight European crowns under Bernard Laporte are all but gone, with
the "last of the Mohicans" looking forward to a final outing.
With Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams, Carl Hayman and the great
Jonny Wilkinson already in retirement, only flying Springbok wing Bryan Habana
will remain of Laporte's stars who reigned in Europe from 2013-2015 and reached
three straight Top 14 finals from 2012-2014 too.
In fact, this will be Toulon's fifth Top 14 final in six
years, although they have lifted the Bouclier de Brennus only once in that
With first choice flyhalf Francois Trinh-Duc struggling for
fitness and semi-final hero Anthony Belleau still a "work in
progress" according to scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde, Giteau is in
the running for a rare start at the Stade de France, either at No 10 or inside
He made a major impact after replacing compatriot James
O'Connor at inside centre on 53 minutes in the 18-15 win over La Rochelle last
And Laporte for one cannot speak highly enough of the
versatile back's talents.
"He's phenomenal, maybe the best player I've
coached," Laporte told Midi Olympique.
"In fact, that's not the word, one should rather say
manager - because Matt knows how to do everything, to perfection!"
Mitchell will likely start, even if Habana is fit to play -
the South African like former New Zealand captain Ma'a Nonu missed the
semi-final through injury but were back in training this week.
"Drew's a big character with a huge ego. But most of
all he's a fierce competitor," added Laporte, who admitted to having had
several "muscular" run-ins with Mitchell over the years, not least
when he dropped him for the 2015 European Champions Cup semi-finals.
"He managed to convince me to pick him for the
final," said Laporte, "and he responded in the best way
possible" by scoring a mazy solo try.
As for Smith, Laporte described him as "a foot soldier,
always ready for combat".
"On the pitch, he's a rock."
Toulon will have a tough ask repeating their European final
triumphs over Clermont in 2013 and 2015, though.
They finished nine points behind them in the regular season
table and while Toulon were labouring to beat 14-man La Rochelle, Clermont ran
in five tries to dump reigning champions Racing out of the semi-finals despite
being reduced themselves to 14 men.
But the choker tag is a hard one to shake for a Clermont
side that has made a habit of losing major finals.
Three times they've finished runners up in the European Cup,
11 times in the French league championship and even once in the European
Over the last 20 years alone, they've lost 10 finals,
although they did win the Top 14 in 2010 and the Challenge Cup in 1999 and
Of the two sides, Clermont have played the better rugby this
year, reaching the European Champions Cup final, and eliminating Toulon at the
Clermont scored 19 more tries and 126 more points over the
course of the regular season than Toulon, and coach Frank Azema is confident
they can get the final monkey off their backs.
"To be honest, I don't even know how many we’ve
lost," he said wryly. "We need to play how we know to, and then we'll