Toulon’s bid to be crowned kings of European rugby for an unprecedented third successive season will see their star-studded side up against familiar foes when they take on French rivals Clermont in Saturday’s final at Twickenham.
Toulon boasts the talents of Australians Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell, South Africa’s Bakkies Botha and New Zealand’s Carl Heyman.
But Clermont, looking to gain revenge for their 16-15 defeat by Toulon in the 2013 European Champions Cup final, have plenty of international firepower including Australian playmaker Brock James and England’s Nick Abendanon.
Wales’s Jonathan Davies is there too, although he must fight off competition from the likes of France’s Wesley Fofana and Aurelien Rougerie for a place in Clermont’s midfield.
Both clubs are among the most well-financed in Europe, with Toulon backed by wealthy comic-book publisher Mourad Boudjellal while Clermont were founded by the family behind France’s Michelin tyre company and still receive generous backing from the business to this day.
Yet, as is often the way in modern professional sport, both clubs like to portray themselves as outsiders, even underdogs.
“We are accused of being a wealthy club but Toulon is a great adventure,” Boudjellal told AFP.
“It’s like Indiana Jones, but it’s my money and I’m putting everything including my shirt on the line, while Michelin pours 100 million euros into Clermont.
“It’s not a criticism, because Michelin is a great French business, but I don’t understand why Clermont try to pass themselves off as a poor club.”
Giteau, despite Toulon’s European triumphs, said Clermont were favourites for Saturday’s match.
“Clermont are a wonderful team,” said Giteau, whose form looks set to earn him a recall to the Australian national side after the Australian Rugby Union relaxed its rules on players playing abroad.
“For me, they are even the best team this year,” he added.
“They have played well all the time, they have done their work. For me they are favourites in the final, but in a match such as this there’s no harm not being favourites.”
Clermont and France scrum-half Morgan Parra said his side’s habit of losing in crunch games — they were beaten in three successive French Top 14 finals before winning in 2010 — meant it was Toulon who had the advantage.
“Today, everyone sees us as the losers because we don’t have a record of winning in finals, and that is the ideal scenario for me,” said Parra.
Both Toulon and Clermont were pushed hard in seeing off Leinster and Saracens in their respective semi-finals, while both French clubs were defeated in the Top 14 last weekend.
For the likes of the English duo of Clermont’s Abendanon and Toulon’s Steffon Armitage, the reigning European player of the year, Saturday’s match is another chance to put pressure, ahead of the World Cup, on the Rugby Football Union to ease its policy of not picking overseas-based players for Test duty.
But with the final taking place barely a fortnight after the semi-finals and the lack of an English club in the final, Saturday’s match is set to be played in front of a near half-empty Twickenham, where the capacity is 82,000.