French rugby’s showpiece event, the Top 14 final will take place at the Stade de France on Saturday, June 17 as Toulouse goes up against European champions La Rochelle.
Ronan O’Gara’s side will be looking to avoid a repeat of the 2020/21 season where they lost the final in this fixture after losing the Champions Cup final a couple of weeks previously.
Following European success against Leinster in May, La Rochelle beat Bordeaux-Begles in the semi-final, meanwhile, Toulouse ran in five tries in a comprehensive 41-14 win over Racing 92.
With international stars scattered across both sides, it is set to be one big battle to see who will lift the Brennus shield on the weekend.
A whole host of French internationals will feature including Antonie Dupont, Gregory Alldritt and Unai Antonio.
It is the battle in two positions that we want to give close attention to, fly-half and fullback, arguably two of the most important factors on the field come Saturday night. Whilst Toulouse have two stars in Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos, both currently starters for Fabien Galthie’s French national team, it will be interesting to see how the duo get on against Antoine Hastoy and Brice Dulin.
So, how will these four players affect one of the biggest games in the European club rugby calendar?
Similarities across the board
If you were to compare the head-to-head battles in both positions, you would find that there are plenty of similarities between them.
Both Ramos and Dulin can boot the ball for miles which has become a tradition for French fullbacks ever since Melvyn Jaminet kicked off his Test career, but the duo can also create in attack, although at times they could both lack consistency until Ramos’ impressive campaign in the most recent campaign.
Meanwhile, Ntamack and Hastoy would be more known for their passing and running game before their kicking game, but when needed they can execute a smart kicking game.
The quartet have all featured for the national side under Galthie throughout the last Rugby World Cup cycle, with Ramos keeping hold of the 15 shirt from Dulin and Jaminet & Ntamack being first choice ahead of Hastoy who was third choice in the Six Nations behind Matthieu Jalibert.
Also, don’t be surprised during the Top 14 final where all four players will stand in as first receiver at some point, a very common theme amongst the two sides.
Kicking will be vital
One of the intriguing battles that will take place in the Top 14 final in Paris this weekend will be the kicking battle between the two sides, whilst Dupont and La Rochelle scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow will trade a few box kicks with each other, I’m sure the 10 and 15s will want their say.
In the semi-finals, both sides kicked more than the opposition, Toulouse kicked 32 times compared to Racing’s 22 and La Rochelle kicked 41 to Bordeaux’s 38.
Fullback Dulin will need to be wary of some of the box kicking Dupont will send his way as he’ll need to be solid under the high ball, if he doesn’t and Toulouse regain possession, expect either Ramos or Ntamack to kick longer and apply plenty of pressure.
On the other hand, O’Gara set up his side last week for kicking battles that would go on for much longer, which paid dividends in a crucial second half kicking exchange.
With flanker Paul Boudehent in the sin bin and the score at 21-13, La Rochelle proceed to spend the next 6 minutes in a continuous kicking battle with Bordeaux, with Hastoy and Dulin playing a vital role to gain territory and take the sting out of the man advantage.
A clash of kicking styles awaits with Toulouse hoping to force errors from box kicking before unleashing one of the other backs to boot it down field against a more patient La Rochelle side who would be more than happy to spend the majority of the game kicking,
Quietly brilliant Hastoy
Whilst we all know of the qualities of Ntamack, some of which we have seen on the international stage against the All Blacks in 2021 with that break from under his own posts, his opposite man this weekend has quietly been doing the business for O’Gara’s club.
Since joining from Pau ahead of this season, Hastoy has already won the Champions Cup and will be looking to complete the double.
Although it was his performance in the final against Leinster which impressed the most, despite not being overly flashy. He kicked 12 points in the final and played a vital part in the two first half tries.
The first sees him narrow the Leinster defence while his scrum-half partner in the bin and Dulin stepping in at 9, a simple intervention from the fly-half means centre Jonathan Danny could smash into Garry Ringrose and score.
It happens again for the second try, with Leinster forwards not retreating around, instead of getting Ringrose to try and tackle a bigger man, Hastoy wants to get Ringrose to make a decision as there’s an overlap out wide.
Hastoy runs towards the gap of where Leinster forwards should have been but couldn’t retreat back in time, Ringrose bites and a simple pass to UJ Seuteni who dots down.
Top 14 final too close to call?
Both sides will be looking to find weaknesses of the other, but with both sides being extremely talented and stacked with internationals, it could be too close to call.
Maybe the game will go down to the kicking of either fly-half or fullback in this year’s Top 14 final.
Main Photo credit: @StadeToulousain