Another long, hard season of European rugby comes to a close over the weekend, with two games that offer a fitting conclusion to the revamped competitions.
There has been no shortage of drama and excitement – and that was just in the semi-finals. From October to April, the rugby has been of the highest standard, and now the two best from each competition do battle in London for the big prizes.
The Champions Cup Final at Twickenham has a distinctly French flavour. Two of Europe’s most feared sides have made it, and now Clermont Auvergne and Toulon compete to be king. Toulon of course are going for their third victory in succession following last year’s dramatic victory over Saracens at Millennium Stadium.
On that occasion it was Jonny Wilkinson – in his last ever game on British soil – that ensured victory. This time Jonny will be offering his support as another British-born player looks to leave his mark. Leigh Halfpenny was unerring in the semi-final win over Leinster, with six penalties and a conversion giving him 20 points, and a repeat of that performance will surely leave Toulon on the brink of glory. There are other stars, of course. Springbok Bryan Habana scored the try that made the difference in the semi-final, while the likes of Matt Giteau, Mathieu Bastareaud and Frederic Michalak can all be match winners.
Not that Clermont should be discounted. The 2013 runners-up came back from a half-time deficit to overcome Saracens in their semi-final, backed by vociferous support from some 41,500 fans.
This victory was payback for last year’s defeat to the same opponents at the same stage. Another defeat would have been heartbreak for the Clermont Players, but a moment of Wesley Fofana magic and the trusted boot of Brock James saw them home. Jonathan Davies will be looking to put one over on his Welsh counterpart Halfpenny, but his side will start as underdogs. Toulon won the last meeting between the two, 27-19, and have a 3 point advantage on them at the top of the Top 14 table.
Over at The Stoop the previous night there is an England v Scotland clash that should set the tone for a cracking weekend as Gloucester take on Edinburgh.
Gloucester produced perhaps their best performance of the tournament in the semi-final to knock off Exeter Chiefs in game that they were considered outsiders despite their home advantage. Three tries, including one from England star Jonny May, ensured their path to the final. Gilbert Rugby ambassador Richard Hibbard will line up for Gloucester as he looks to end his first season with the club with some silverware.
Edinburgh overcame Newport Gwent Dragons in their semi-final courtesy of a second half blitz that crushed the Welsh side’s hopes. Five tries (with different scorers) proved enough for Edinburgh, who were ruthless in taking advantage of the Dragons three yellow cards.
The final looks set to be a close affair, and with both teams sitting ninth in their respective domestic competitions, this game has a huge impact on how their season will be reflected on.
European Finals weekend is always a special and this one promises to be no different. Gilbert Rugby will be there every step of the way as the Official Ball Supplier to both tournaments, so here is to two cracking games of rugby that offer a fitting conclusion.
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