Clermont and Toulon – a clash of styles
From the austere centre of Auvergne to the brash Mediterranean coast, Clermont and Toulon are the polar opposites of French rugby
Matt Giteau: One of Toulon’s standout signings made by owner Mourad Boudjellal. Photograph:James Crombie/Inpho
Clermont v Toulon . . . Even if the game is being played in Dublin, seen from France there is an unerring logic in these two clubs battling it out in a Heineken Cup final.
While both teams have only recently become major players on the European stage, these are the two sides who have dominated the season so far in France, and who may yet go on to play each other again in the final of the Top 14 on June 1st.
As a measure of the wafer-thin difference between the two sides, only one score separates them in the two previous meetings this year, the first a 24-21 win to Clermont after a dodgy penalty in the dying seconds, the second an equally nail-biting 26-26 draw after that man Jonny Wilkinson missed a long-range penalty in the last minute of play.
But far beyond the heart-stopping intensity of their on-field rivalry Toulon v Clermont is above all a contrast of styles.
A bit like Leinster v Munster in the Irish rugby context, only far more so. For this is not just simplistic one-upmanship between the fancy boys from Dublin and the country boys from Limerick and Cork. Toulon v Clermont is a war of styles, a clash of cultures from two vastly different regions of France, and two proud clubs who have waited a long time to get their share of the cake.
Only 373 km separates Clermont-Ferrand from Toulon as the crow flies. But even today it will take you five and a half hours in a train to get from the isolated enclave in the Auvergne to another equally isolated outpost on the Mediterranean coast.
Both clubs are over 100 years old, but cut off from the heartland of French rugby in the southwest, over the decades both have cultivated a siege mentality, not to mention sizeable chips on their collective shoulders.
But that is where the similarities end. For in terms of accent, food, culture, economic models and self-image Toulon and Clermont are practically the polar opposites of French rugby.
For the rest of France, the Auvergnats from the centre of France are seen as grimly introspective, penny-pinching and austere, while the Toulonnais from the historic naval port are loud, brash, and given to peacock posturing.
A caricature, perhaps. But while both have serious financial clout (Clermont has the second biggest budget with €25.5 million, Toulon third with €24million) their approach to professionalism has been so diametrically opposed as to be a caricature. Founded in 1911, throughout its history ASM Clermont has always been closely linked to the Michelin tyre manufacturer. Indeed the ‘M’ in ASM originally stood for Michelin, the company still owns the club’s ground (Stade Marcel-Michelin) appoints the club president, and the club’s infrastructures benefit hugely from the company’s massive backing.
Opposed to the institutional “old money” of Clermont, however, the recent success of Toulon (founded 1908) is down to one man: Mourad Boudjellal. A fast-talking Arab immigrant, an agent provocateur from the wrong side of the tracks, a “nouveau riche” who never touched a rugby ball in his life, Boudjellal made his fortune publishing comic books.
But since he took over the club in 2006, he has taken them from the depths of the second division to the upper strata of the Top 14, more than quadrupling the budget and punctuating his progress with stand-out signings of for instance, Tana Umaga, George Gregan, Sonny Bill Williams, Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau, Bakkies Botha, Chris Masoe or Fred Michalak . . .
Setting the tone for the match, once again playing the victim, last week Boudjellal had a poke at Clermont’s financial power base and what is seen as substantial under the table backing from Michelin. “If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is lying. And Clermont is part of the lie. They have many talents, a very fine team, but they also have considerable means,” he said.
In reaction to which, Clermont fans started up a “support Boudjellal” charity, sending him hundreds of cheques for . . . one cent. As they say in English : “Vive la différence”!
Ian Borthwick is editor of French magazine Attitude Rugby