The Heineken Cup Final is the piece de resistance of European Rugby. It is what the Champions League final is to soccer (only without the misleading nomenclature), what the Stanley Cup is to hockey and what...well, you get the the picture. It is a Very Big Deal. Which is why it is so significant that this year two French teams are playing in the final.
There’s no doubting that the French league, with it’s big investors and lack of salary cap, is viewed with some suspicion by the other five big rugby nations in Europe, but it is also fitting. Rugby dominates some regions of the country like few sports in the world can. Make the mistake of talking to a Frenchman from such a region about soccer and the best response you are likely to receive is a scornful exclamation of “Le Foot!” and a traditional Gallic shrug (the worst response is unprintable, even here).
Clermont Auvergne start as red hot favourites for this match, with William Hill quoting them as short as 5/8. They are the dominant side in France and have already beaten their opponents this season. Their side is packed with household names, from captain Aurelien Rougerie downwards. Players such as Lee Byrne of Wales and Sitiveni Sivivatu of New Zealand have abandoned their international careers to play for them. Vincent Debaty, a front row starter for the French national side, sometimes cannot even get a place on the replacements bench. They are a side who would beat most international XVs.
Armed with all of that information, then, you might well ask why they are not at shorter betting odds, or why opponents Toulon are as long as 13/8 with BetVictor. The fact is that, although less-heralded, Toulon have a pretty similar mix of players at their beck and call. If you want career-sacrificing international players, just ask the Armitage brothers, Delon and Steffan, or prop Andrew Sheridan why they are not on England’s tour to Argentina this summer - the small-mindedness of which is inexplicable and frustrating. Maxime Mermoz is the French international who can hope at best for a replacement berth, wall-busting French centre Matthieu Basteraud the star of the back line, and then of course there is Jonny. The Boot of Wilkinson has seen them past both Saracens and Leicester Tigers in the knockout stages of this competition and, with the final at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, he’ll be playing on the stage of so many good performances in an England jersey.
There’s one other thing which you should be factoring into your picks on this game. Clermont’s success has been build upon a fearsome home record of over 50 games without defeat. No matter how you dress it up, no matter how many Frenchmen there are in Ireland on Saturday, this isn’t a home game. Their away record is nothing like as good as their home one and this is most definitely a road game.
All of which is why I’ll be backing a Toulon win with my sports picks. More importantly, I’ll be doing so now, because as the match gets closer towards kick off I suspect that there will be a fair amount of money placed on them, drawing those odds in.
If you are tempted to look at some of the more esoteric markets, then bear in mind that Toulon haven’t been ahead at half time in either of their knockout victories, so back them to be behind at that point and come back to win. And then also consider betting on the first scoring play to be a Wilkinson penalty, and for the man himself to outscore Morgan Parra, who is likely to be the main goalkicker for Clermont.