Money talks in the big-budget Heineken Cup final between Clermont and Toulon
These are clubs of tradition and values but financial muscle has put them top of the pile
In a final between two sides so well matched, Jonny Wilkinson could be the one to prove the difference.
It isn’t often I get to blow my own trumpet so I’ll just make it a small one. In the first column of the season back in October, I tipped Clermont Auvergne and Toulon as the teams to watch in this year’s Heineken Cup.
It wasn’t exactly a huge long shot to pick Clermont but Toulon were a bit down the betting list at the time, with Clermont, Leinster and Toulouse ahead of them. Given the size of their budget – and the fact Clermont and Leinster were in the same pool together – I couldn’t see any reason to ignore them.
Clermont and Toulon are great clubs with huge histories and traditions and values. But there’s no denying that this Heineken Cup final pairing is a triumph for the weight of finance behind both clubs. For the first time in a long time, money has talked here.
You are looking at Clermont who have 29 internationals in their squad and Toulon who have 26. Both clubs have in or around 20 non-French players on their payroll. It will be interesting actually to see how many French players start on Saturday. Clermont will have more than Toulon, that’s for sure.
These are clubs who can sign just about any player in the world they like the look of. When it came to adding players for the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, Toulon went and got Rocky Elsom and Danie Roussow. They’re adding Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell to their squad in the summer. This is financial muscle that other clubs can only dream of.
I’m genuinely not complaining here or moaning in any way. This is just reality. Teams with enormous budgets like Clermont and Toulon should be making the business end of the season because it’s just such a huge advantage. Not only are they in the final of the Heineken Cup but they both finished a mile clear in the Top 14.
Clermont finished on 91 points, Toulon on 90 with Toulouse back in third on 79. But it’s their points difference that really drives home their dominance. Clermont finished with +361, Toulon with +323. Toulouse were the only other team to get over 200, with a +201 points difference. These two teams are the best of the biggest.
Having a seriously big budget will always show up in the size and quality of the playing squad but there’s more to it than that. If you are a player at one of those clubs, you will feel the effect of the money that’s around the place with just about every step you take. It’s there in the hotels you stay in, in gear you’re provided with, in the clothes you wear. It’s there in the car you drive, in the accommodation you come home to at the end of the day. Everything will be done to make you more comfortable.
‘Going for nothing’
I remember years ago when we were starting out with the Ireland Under-18s, Tom Cusack from Richmond in Limerick said a great thing to Tom Tierney that we always kept with us. “If it’s going for nothing, take it even when you don’t want it.” For a couple of young fellas in the Irish Youths, it sounded like the best advice you could get so we took it and lived by it for as long as there was anything going. The Toulon and Clermont players are obviously gone well beyond that but everything is relative.
The trick for these clubs then is to get the right sort of individuals in. Clermont have had that for a few years but Toulon struggled with it for a while. They didn’t always get guys on who were as committed as they should have been. They were signing players without necessarily knowing the kind of person they were getting.
That’s the toughest balance for any of these big clubs to strike. You want the success but to get it, you need to keep players grounded. You want to give them everything without making them feel that it’s all too easy. You want them to be comfortable but you want them to retain that bit of fight. The worst thing that can happen is for an overseas player to come in and just cruise his way to a paycheck.
There’s no doubt that has happened at times, especially in some of these big French clubs. Think about it – a guy comes in from a different culture, finds himself greeted like a king, gets given everything he could ask for in a lovely town in the south of France and is told he only has to play two or three games every month. It’s totally understandable that the odd guy finds life just that little bit easy and lets his standards slip.
Inspire team spirit
Toulon’s success is down to the fact that they have the likes of Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Juan Fernandez-Lobe on board. These are guys whose values are all about winning, all about being the best they can be. When the real pressure comes on in games, these are guys who relish being the ones to respond. They’re the ones who inspire team spirit and who give example for the others to follow. It’s not just a matter of turning up and being talented. It’s a matter of being faithful to the time and money that has gone into you.
Because it’s a two-way street. When you’re being provided with the best facilities, the best resources, the best medical science, the best of everything, then all they ask of you in return is honesty. It’s that simple. You can sign all the players you like but if they’re not honest about the effort they’re giving in return, you won’t get very far. That has been Clermont and Toulon’s great achievement – in a world where there is so much money sloshing around, they have built massive squads without losing the strong streak of honesty.
For Clermont, a lot of that must have come from the fact that they were knocking on the door for years. If they win on Saturday, it will be the culmination of a decade of having to pick themselves up off the floor time after time. They were runners-up in France 10 times, including three years in a row before they finally won the title in 2010. For all their money and power, they’ve never made a Heineken Cup final until this year. That’s a lot of regrets and a lot of heartache. I can only imagine the amount of tough, honest conversations they must have had among themselves down the years.
Kept them grounded
I suppose, by all known form, Clermont should probably win. I know people look at the way they stumbled a bit against Munster and feel that there’s a weakness or a vulnerability there but to be honest, I don’t see it as a bad thing. It would have kept them grounded. It would have concentrated their minds a lot more than if they had won easily.
But my one worry for them will come if Toulon can keep the game tight. If you can match Clermont physically you have a chance, and although there aren’t many teams in Europe that can claim anything like the amount of bulk they have, Toulon are definitely one of them. So if they can keep it nip and tuck, they have an ace up their sleeve.
Because when I think about Toulon, for all their vast array of talent, I still come back to one man. I come back to Wilkinson. He just stands out. If Toulon can keep the game in the melting pot, if they can get to the last 10 minutes and it’s going to take one kick to win it, is there anybody you’d rather have on your side? Clermont are a better-balanced team but Toulon have the match-winner in the number 10 shirt. It could be the difference.