This Saturday evening French giants Clermont and Toulon go head-to-head at Twickenham in a bid to be crowned the best team in Europe, but there’s just one problem, and that is the fact that this final is refusing to capture the public’s imagination.
With news that Twickenham is likely to be half empty come the weekend, it’s likely to be a massive blow to the organisers of this newly-formed European Champions Cup tournament. However, the organisers can’t hand pick who is in the final, but if they could, they probably wouldn’t pick two french teams to face each other in a foreign country.
In an interview with The Guardian earlier this week, tournament organiser Paul McNaughton lays out the problems this weekend provides and a much bigger issue around the date of the final:
“We are expecting a crowd of 50,000 at Twickenham, which is the norm when two French clubs play each other outside France, and we are looking at initiatives to encourage sales,” said McNaughton, when asked if discounted tickets would be offered. “We expect up to 8,000 supporters to travel from France and I am not sure that in this case playing in the middle of the month would have made a huge difference.
“That said, there is a feeling that the two finals [Friday’s Challenge Cup final between Gloucester and Edinburgh at The Stoop will be a sell-out] should be played in the middle of May rather than the beginning and more are coming round to that. There was no way of moving Saturday’s final to France because 30,000 tickets had already been sold and, anyway, there was no time.”
If either of these teams were playing an Irish club for example the sold out signs would be out but unfortunately the competition doesn’t have the same pull in France. With less than 10,000 French supporters travelling, even though their respective teams could make history, it’s a damn clear indication that – in the supporters’ eyes at least – the French Top 14 is still top billing. This is in direct comparison to supporters in Ireland who value the ‘Heineken Cup’ so highly and who can blame them with all the success we’ve had in it.
Seeing French teams in European Cup finals is something we are going to have to get used to. With the money involved in the Top 14 it’s going to become a more regular occurrence in years to come. The French are definitely beginning to steal a march on the rest of Europe.
Toulon are being put forward as the moneybags of the league but taking Racing Metro as an example, it just shows the money is there throughout French rugby. At the end of the season the club will lose Jonathan Sexton who is going home to Leinster and his replacement is only the remarkable Dan Carter.
It’s for this reason that Irish teams are struggling to keep pace with these superpowers and it’s why seeing Irish teams in the European Cup final may be limited in years to come.
Whatever about the attendance at the final this weekend, the overall standard of this new competition has gone up as a result of this new format.
Making it out of your pool now has become extremely difficult. Former winners Munster, Ulster and Leicester have all failed to do so. The standard of the tournament has been remarkably increased as a result of the increased competition.
The match is a repeat of that remarkable final in the Aviva Stadium two years ago between the same teams, which Toulon won.
For most neutrals watching they will want a Clermont win as they play the best rugby and have been the perennial bridesmaids in the competition over the years. They remarkably are still trying to win it for the first time. On the other hand Toulon are looking to win three titles on the trot and cement themselves as Europe’s best ever team.
Whatever happens on Saturday, history will be made.
Here’s a look back at the final from 2013 to whet the appetite for the weekend.
Robert Cribbin, Pundit Arena
Featured image By Diliff (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons