Toulon will be aiming to stay on course for an elusive French-European double when they take on Racing-Métro in the first of the Top 14 semi-finals on Friday.
With next weekend’s Heineken Cup Final against Saracens looming large on the horizon, RCT must first focus on securing their third domestic final in as many years. Despite finishing at the summit of the league standings at the end of the regular season, last year’s losing finalists will not enjoy home field advantage as both semi-finals will be take place Lille’s Grande Stade. (Defending champions Castres meet Montpellier in the second semi-final 24 hours later, the winners to play for the Bouclier de Brennus at the Stade de France on May 31.)
If anything, Racing – who finished fifth in the regular season – will be just a short train ride from home in the northern French city as they set their sights on their first final since 1990. Although Racing have been absent from the final for many years, their coaching duo of Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers went all the way to the title last year at the helm of Castres, with an approach similar to Racing’s pragmatic style this term.
It isn’t flash, but it works. The Parisians made just one line-break in last week’s narrow play-off victory over Toulouse with Jonny Sexton kicking all their points. Expect les Franciliens to keep it simple and keep the scoreboard ticking from the kicking tee. In many ways, this semi-final represents the new face of French rugby as both clubs – champions in the second division ProD2 in 2009 and 2010 – have returned to their former glory days thanks to millionaire benefactors.
But rugby isn’t contest between cheque books, and to get this far both clubs have been able to create an atmosphere were the players are driven by the search for silverware, not just a fat bank balance Toulon will be buoyed by the return of Springbok lock Bakkies Botha, who embodies the warrior spirit that Toulon fans demand.
The 34-year-old enforcer admits not having a full game in his legs after almost four months out with a fractured arm, but his big-match experience and insatiable taste for battle make his return good news for owner Mourad Boudjellal’s foreign legion of stars. “These upcoming three weeks are the most important in the players’ lives because if we again win the European Cup or the Bouclier de Brennus, it’ll validate all the work we’ve put in this season and make the Toulon fans happy,” said Botha.
As for his own fitness, the 78-time capped ‘Bok said: “I’m running and line-out jumping a lot, I’ve been working hard over the last few weeks to be ready,” he said. “It was very frustrating for me to see the team play so well without being able to be part of it.” Racing-Métro will likely pick two hardened South Africans in their own second-row for Friday’s match – Juandre Kruger and Francois Van der Merwe.
“All the players want to compete in play-offs but if you’re on the pitch, on the bench or in the stands, each has the same role to play: to give off a positive energy to the team so it plays the best possible in the last three games of the season,” Botha said. “I go to training every day thinking only of winning more trophies. We’re not happy just to take part in a competition, we want to win it.”
Racing have hit prime form after underperforming in the opening months of the season as their new imports including Sexton and Jamie Roberts struggled to gel. Like Toulon, Racing have an outspoken president in property tycoon Jacky Lorenzetti, who was in fine joking form in the build-up to the semi-final. “We know well that we’re playing a semi-final against a universal team, a team of the world, with its galaxy of great players,” Lorenzetti quipped.
The Racing matchday 23 that toppled Toulouse in the play-offs is unchanged.
Toulon 41-14 Racing Métro
Racing Métro 14-3 Toulon
Form: Racing have won six of their last seven Top 14 games, including last week’s 21-16 victory in Toulouse. They were thrashed in Montpellier a week earlier though. Toulon are coming off a bye week but have won nine of their last ten games in all competitions, including victories of Leinster and Munster in the Heineken Cup. Their only loss was away to Clermont in mid-March.
Toulon: 15 Delon Armitage, 14 Drew Mitchell, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Matt Giteau, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 JonnyWilkinson, 9 Sebastien Tillous Borde, 8Steffon Armitage, 7 Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Jocelino Suta, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Craig Burden, 1 Xavier Chiocci.
Replacements: 16 Jean charles Orioli, 17 Alexandre Menini , 18 Ali Williams, 19 Virgile Bruni, 20 David Smith, 21 Maxime Mermoz , 22 Michael Claassens, 23 Martin Castrogiovanni.
Racing Métro: 15 Juan Martin Hernandez, 14 Adrien Plante, 13 Henry Chavancy, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Juan Imhoff, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Jacques Cronje, 7 Bernard le Roux. 6 Antoine Battut, 5 Francois van der Merwe, 4 Juandre Kruger, 3 Luc Ducalcon, 2 Virgile Lacombe, 1 Julien Brugnaut.
Replacements: 16 Jeremie Maurouard, 17 Eddy Ben Arous, 18 Fabrice Metz, 19 Wenceslas Lauret, 20 Mike Phillips, 21 Fabrice Estebanez, 22 Benjamin Fall , 23 Brian Mujati.
Date: Friday, May 16
Venue: Grande Stade, Lille
Kick-off: 20.45 local (18.45 GMT)
Referee: Mathieu Raynal