|French Club Championship semi-finals promise to be titanic battles
||[May. 29th, 2009|11:01 am]
The Lions tour opener in far away Rustenburg isn't the only big rugby occasion of this weekend. England are playing an absolutely star-studded Barbarians side at Twickenham and in France, they have the semi-finals of the French Club Championship.|
These French matches are more like the meeting of warring tribes. Physical well being and safety goes out of the window; nothing matters but reaching the final, which will be played in Paris next Saturday night (June 6).
The semi-finals are always played on neutral grounds. Tonight in Bordeaux, the holders Toulouse will take on Clermont Auvergne, the team they beat in last year's final. Clermont have never won the French title yet incredibly, they have now been in nine finals. The sense of frustration is immense at the club of the mountainous Auvergne region in central France.
Toulouse are assured competitors, stylish and talented. They have an all international back line and a pack laden with more international names. Yet Clermont, under their shrewd New Zealand coach Vern Cotter who used to be No. 2 to Robbie Deans at the Canterbury Crusaders, know what they have to do. They won't suffer for a lack of organisation.
Clermont made a shocking start to the season yet lately they have come right into form and have been scoring tries for fun. It looks like they've hit form at just the right moment. And yet……I can't see Toulouse mucking it up tonight. They have so many resources and have just signed the superb French international back row player Louis Picamoles from AS Montpellier for next season, plus promising Bourgoin centre Yann David. Talk about snatching all the goodies in the candy shop !
If Toulouse go out tonight, it will be a major shock.
Who would they play in the final, if they get through? Either Perpignan or Stade Francais, Paris, who will meet in the other semi-final tomorrow in Lyon. I'll be there to see it and one thing is guaranteed – as ever, it will be a great, noisy, emotional, physically shattering occasion. These semi-finals always are.
Perpignan finished top of the table after the league campaign, Paris fourth. Perpignan would be certainties if their New Zealand All Black Dan Carter were playing. But alas, Carter wrecked his Achilles in the January match between these two sides in Paris and will be in the stand at Lyon tomorrow. The Catalan club will also miss tough Scottish lock Nathan Hines who is of course with the Lions in South Africa.
Even so, Perpignan should win yet you never quite know with Stade Francais. Bedevilled by injuries all season, their Australian coach Ewen McKenzie has had a tough time of it. But now, with the likes of Juan Martin Hernandez, their brilliant Argentine back and fit, they look a stronger outfit. It wouldn't be a great surprise if they stopped Perpignan, and advanced themselves on another final.
Whatever happens, both semi-finals promise to be titanic contests.