Rien n’a change.
The business end of the French Top 14 is exactly the same as it was on Sunday morning after a pulsating 80 minutes in the South of France. Toulon lead the pack by two points.
Over 34,000 turn up to watch Toulon and Clermont battle it out in the heat of a glorious Côte d’Azur spring afternoon. An undiluted passion pulses from the half finished stands of RCT’s home away from home; the Stade Mayol is simply too small for this very French affair, and so they de-camp west to the building site that is Marseille’s Velodrome.
Jonny Wilkinson, who had an off day with the boot and handed the kicking duties to Matt Giteau, could have snatched victory in the 79th minute with a shot from well inside his own half, but struck the upright beneath the bar.
26-26 was probably a fair reflection of things; Toulon could never look after the ball well enough to put away a much-weakened Clermont, fielding only one player from their 36-14 Heineken Cup win against Montpellier.
Wilkinson got the home crowd — around 32,000 — buzzing with a 40-metre penalty, then Clermont’s Noa Nakaitaci went under the posts for his first try of the afternoon.
Maxime Mermoz went over in the right corner for Toulon and Wilkinson
Clermont struck back with two Mike Delany penalties before Nakaitaci crossed for his second try and Wilkinson replied with a penalty to leave Toulon trailing 13-20 at the break.
The second half was a tale of good luck and bad luck for RCT. First, Alexis Palisson intercepted, running in under the posts.
And after the former World Cup winner had missed a couple of attempts he
would normally slot in his sleep, replacement Matt Giteau put Toulon in front.
The crowd vented their disapproval when Giteau had a try disallowed by referee M Jean-Luc Rebollal who adjudged that here had been a Toulon knock-on near the half way line.
But that was a whisper compared to the roar when Palisson again intercepted and crossed in the left corner only for M Rebollal to call play back and award a penalty to Toulon on the Clermont 5-metre line. Wilkinson’s shot went wide.
C’est le vie.
Clermont levelled then took the lead with penalties from Delany and replacement Anthony Floch, and that was the way it stayed until Giteau squared the scores at 26-26.
In truth, of the eligible players in either squad, none are realistically likely to figure in Warren Gatland’s plans.
Most didn’t figure much, if at all, in this game.
Andrew Sheridan had departed by the time I’d finally found my way into the ground — more of that in a minute. Neither lee Byrne nor Nathan Hines were on the Clermont teamsheet, and the Armitage brothers are as likely to feature as Michael Caine is in Harry Brown ll.
To be fair, both had solid games — and it’s great to see Delon spend more time on the pitch than the marching band — but there are better options at 15 and 7. Mind you, Steffon is a natural 7, in the mould of Back, Robinson and Winterbottom, and could cause the Australian back row more problems than a digeridoo without a mouthpiece.
Gethin Jenkins is out of favour with M Laporte, but one has to ask where Gatland would find a better loosehead? Not in Scotland, Ireland… or England, for that matter.
And so that leaves Jonny.
As in the Munster game, he was immense. Bossed the game. Apart from the pinpoint accuracy of his up and unders, he had a rare off day with the boot. But he tackled like a 7, fixed defenders and off-loaded more effectively than a Marseillaise dope dealer. In the right environment, he is as good a player as he was in ’03. And the Aussies still fear that left boot of his.
For me, he is every bit as much on that plane as is the pilot. Problem is, does he want to be? And this applies equally to every eligible player in a Top 14 club. The first Lions game, against the Barbarians in Hong Kong, is on June 1st — the same day as the Top 14 final. And that would leave those selected with a huge dilemma.
FRENCH TOP 14 OR AVIVA PERMIERSHIP?
To give this some objectivity, the last Aviva game I attended was Sale V Bath, on 22nd March. So cold it made your nose bleed.
Tuck it up the jumper or kick and let the opposition make a decision? Yep — both sides did.
But on Sunday I witnessed something refreshingly different. Two sides wanting to give it a lash; to play what’s in front of them and not go three phases then either kick it aimlessly away or pass the ball to the touch judge. It was like watching rugby from the ‘90s. The offload’s not dead; it’s hiding in France, alongside a glorious absence of stifling rugby league defensive structure.
Both sides — particularly Toulon — had holes open up like an osteoporotic octogenarian’s backbone; there were more lines breaks than in six months at the Somme. It was good old-fashioned rugby, where despite coaches and officials’ best efforts, a game broke out. No wonder cash strapped French supporters pay around €70 a head for the privilege.
Top 14 scores nine out of ten for entertainment, compared to six out of ten for the Aviva.
One thing’s for sure: there will be two absorbing games.
Question is — will both French sides play like this when push comes to shove? Bear in mind that a loss on Sunday would not have crippled either side’s play-off aspirations.
But will they play with such a cavalier abandon against Munster and Saracens? Let’s hope so. The Toulon lineout, with Nick Kennedy the driving force, was imperious. Kennedy against O’Connell will be a fascinating subplot and may well decide the game.
On Sunday’s evidence, Toulon will have too much class for Munster — what did we once call it — Gallic flair? And Clermont will have too much fire-power for Sarries. I expect that when these two French sides next meet it will be at the Aviva in Dublin.
I arrive late, thanks to the road to Stade Velodrome merging with the road to the la plage on the first hot day of spring.
The Stade is just one part of the massive Parc des Exposition, and there is just one entrance, cunningly hidden.
The security staff are as unknowledgeable as they are unhelpful (nothing different from home here) and it takes me half an hour to circumnavigate the stadium and find my seat.
Georges, sitting next to me, speaks English and fills me in on what I’ve missed. Two women in front of me light up and I ask if smoking is permitted. He shrugs and asks who’s going to stop them?
As Denaley lines up a shot at goal, booing and whistling from the Toulonese reaches deafening proportion, ignoring the big screen plea: ‘Merci de respecter les buteurs’.
“You get this at home?” asks Georges.
“Only in Wales; when England are playing,” I reply.
Leaving the ground, 35,000 people are squeezed, like a stood on tube of toothpaste, through three tiny gaps between waiting coaches. Once in the street, it’s a battle for survival between the throng attempting to go one way, cars and bikes the other, and buses parked everywhere. Public urination is endemic, and nowhere is there evidence of either police or the army of day-glowed custodians that pervade every public event at home.
For more pictures of this wonderful event, click here
But although there is chaos, there is no disorder, and for this an absence of alcoholic consumption is clearly the reason.
It takes an hour to travel 400 metres to my hotel, through this sea of good-humoured rugby fanatics, but who cares?
This is France; C’est le vie.