For the second season running a powerhouse of French rugby will be turning up to Exeter’s Sandy Park to face the Chiefs and hear ten thousand plus Devonian lungs crying out the tomahawk chop; as the might of Toulon arrive from the south of France. Their band of international superstars led by Johnny Wilkinson expected to turn over the Chiefs without any real difficulty.
It was just over 12 months ago that a similar sense of expectation buzzed around Devon as Chiefs met Clermont Auvergne. But on that occasion the French side left with a bonus point victory as The Vulcans emerged 12-46 winners. Much has changed at Sandy Park however; the side is slowly improving year by year evidenced by their improvement so far in this year’s Heineken cup. But now they face the side that eventually defeated Clermont in the most dramatic of styles in the Heineken cup final in May.
But it’s not the French club that sit top of Pool 2 in the Heineken cup however; it’s the side whose squad doesn’t boast a squad of household names. The upcoming game at Sandy Park on Saturday, and the return leg in Toulon next week could shape which of these two sides progress, and which side bows out before the knock-out stages begin.
Both sides come off of defeats in their respective league games at the weekend, but for Toulon who could have gone to the top of the table with a win losing 23-0 to Stade Francais was a big blow for a team who desperately want to win the Top 14 title. Toulon head coach Bernard Laporte rested many big name stars, claiming they were being rested for the upcoming match this weekend. But it will still dent the Toulon moral; this defeat being the first time they had been shut out completely this season. Whilst Exeter lost narrowly to Bath 21-16, a team they’ve failed to beat since there promotion to the Premiership at the end of the 2009-10 season, meaning the boys from Devon haven’t recorded a win since there LV Cup clash with Harlequins on November 9th. Something they’ll want to rectify this Saturday.
The Exeter pack has proven time and time again that it can cope against all number of oppositions, most notably last season away to Leinster, where only a Johnny Sexton penalty kept the Chiefs from a very creditable draw at the home of the Irish giants. The real question will be can Exeter’s backline deliver a performance to threaten the Toulon “Galácticos” With the likelihood that Giteau, Wilkinson, Michalak, Mermoz, Habana, Mitchell, Bastareaud and Armitage are all likely to feature at some stage, it’s hard to see how the English sides backline will be able to cope.
But a few key stats show how Exeter could have the upper-hand against there much favoured rivals. Exeter have won the most lineouts (25), rucks (198) and completed the most passes (319) in Pool 2, surpassing there French counterparts considerably. However, Exeter have also missed more tackles the most tackles (48) and you feel the English side will have to improve their tackling performances if they are to stop the Toulon juggernaut in its tracks. But if they can cut Wilkinson and co down; the result could go either way.
With five days and a number of training sessions to go, no-one knows who could get injured or what could happen between now and kick off at Sandy Park on Saturday 1.35PM. Toulon will go into the match as favourites, but if the Chiefs perform like they’ve proven they can, and they get the bit of luck every team needs against Toulon then there is nothing stopping them staying at the summit of Pool 2 and putting themselves in the driving seat for qualification into the knock-out rounds of the Heineken cup for the first time in the clubs illustrious history.