Two expensively assembled Euro superpowers contest the final Heineken Cup
Only clubs like Toulon and Saracens have the cash and playing depth to go for a European-domestic double
England outhalves past and present will meet in form of Saracens’ Owen Farrell, left, and Jonny Wilkinson of Toulon when the two clubs meet in this afternoon’s Heineken cup final in Cardiff. Photographs: David Rogers/Getty Images
So this is it then. The last Heineken Cup final does not so much look like a fitting summation of the last 19 years as a foretaste of the new order. Toulon and Saracens have both emerged as European superpowers, in large part by dint of private financial backing, both have cast their net widely and expensively to assemble internationally-studded squads, both are über-ambitious, both wear red and black, and both look here to stay.
Even their climbs have been parallel to a degree. Toulon have a long history and three French championships (1931, 1987, 1992), but were on their downers, impoverished and relegated to ProD2 for financial reasons, until they began their transformation in 2006 with the arrival of the high profile and very loud presidency of Mourad Boudjellal.
A multi-millionaire son of Toulon, of Moroccan heritage, who made his fortune in comic books, Boudjellal initiated a daring recruitment policy, purportedly out of his own pocket to restore the prestigious club to its former glories.
Those signed were more an announcement of intent as value for money, and so along came Tana Umaga, Victor Matfield, George Gregan and more, as Boudjellal and Toulon did more than any French club to initiate the flow of traffic from the Southern Hemisphere of marquee thirtysomethings in the twilight of their careers. Ambitions This policy helped achieve promotion back to the Top 14 in 2008, which merely fuelled Boudjellal’s ambitions after a season flirting with relegation. Amid rumours of a drinking culture, now players with the professionalism, personality and ambition to leave a lasting legacy, such as Jonny Wilkinson and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, were acquired, and are still with the club five years on.
Toulon finished second in the regular season before losing an epic semi-final against Clermont, who went on to win their sole Bouclier de Brennus.
Toulon would suffer more near misses, losing the French Championship finals of 2012 and 2013, and the European Challenge Cup deciders of 2010 and 2012, but the recruitment of Bernard Laporte as coach in 2011 was eventually rewarded last season when they won the first trophy of the Boudjellal era with their Heineken Cup final triumph over Clermont at the Aviva.
In many respects, Boudjellal could be said to have taken a leaf out of the Nigel Wray manual. A former player, Wray was the first of the new breed of English club owners when he became Saracens’ benefactor shortly after the game turned professional in November 1995.
He recruited global stars like Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella and Francois Pienaar. The Saracens coach at the time was Mark Evans, who reputedly had to convince Lynagh – a World Cup winner – his home ground really would be the antiquated Southgate in Bromley Road.