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Challenge Cup: Lyon meet resurgent Toulon in all-French final
First-time finalists Lyon take on domestic rivals Toulon in the Challenge Cup final, with all the action from Marseille exclusively live on BT Sport.
Saturday 14 May. The day French club rugby reminded us of its greatness.
Both European Challenge Cup semi-finals were gripping, wonderful spectacles and the perfect embodiment of French club rugby’s European supremacy.
Of the eight semi-finalists across this season’s Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup, five were French, with three making the respective finals. Leinster were the only club to break the Top 14 stranglehold.
Two of those, Toulon and Lyon, meet in Friday’s Challenge Cup final – and all the action from Marseille is exclusively live on BT Sport 1 from 7.15pm, with kick-off at 8pm.
The all-French affair pits three-time Champions Cup winners and undisputed European royalty in Toulon against Lyon who are competing in their first major final since 1933.
There has been little to separate the sides in the Top 14 this season, with Toulon one position and one point ahead of Lyon heading into the final weekend, but the gulf in pedigree is vast.
Lyon were appearing in their first semi-final against 2003 winners Wasps and recovered admirably from a five-point half-time deficit to earn a seventh straight win in an unbeaten European campaign.
Fly-half Leo Berdeu, the top scorer in this season’s Top 14, contributed 15 points and finished off a fine flowing move – one of the best in this year’s competition – to swing the match in their favour and sink the spirited visitors who made most of the early running.
Berdeu’s stunning try was a magical moment in a memorable game, but it shouldn’t detract from Lyon’s greatest asset: their pack.
Sébastien Taofifénua and London-born Joel Kpoku were inspired, and the former Saracens lock is aware of the threat posed by Toulon.
“They’re on a bit of a good run,” he said. “We know it’s going to be tough, especially in the forwards. They’ve got some electric backs too, so we’ve got to stop them getting into the game.
“The set-piece is going to be the big one – that will set the tone for who comes out on top and where the game is going to be won.”
They suffered a heavy defeat to Bordeaux-Begles in their last match before one of the biggest moments in their history but made wholesale changes with Toulon in mind.
Hours after Lyon edged past Wasps, Toulon turned back the clock to set up the all-French final with a sensational win over much-fancied Saracens.
France wing Gabin Villiere’s blockbuster performance helped them book their final spot – and a chance to become just the fifth side to win both the Champions Cup and Challenge cup – in front of a baying crowd at a vociferous Stade Felix Mayol.
Saracens kept in touch in the first-half, but the hosts produced the knockout blow when Fijian winger Jiuta Wainiqolo scored brilliantly under the posts.
Springbok superstar Eben Etzebeth, who will be released early from his contract to return to South Africa at the end of the season, was exceptional in the first meeting of the heavyweights since 2016-17.
Toulon are regulars in the upper echelons of European club rugby, but Friday’s final is their fourth shot at Challenge Cup glory after three near misses.
They were beaten by Cardiff Blues in their Galactico era in the 2011 final, suffered another agonising defeat in 2012 and lost to a rampant Bristol side in 2020.
Only two players who started against Saracens were named for their encounter with Section Paloise last weekend, but they ran out comfortable 37-20 winners nonetheless, their seventh consecutive win before the final.
In a notable subplot, Lyon head coach Pierre Mignoni will return to Toulon at the end of the season after seven years at the club.
We only remember the winner
- Outgoing Lyon coach Mignoni
The former France scrum-half worked as Toulon’s backs coach between 2013 and 2015 during the most successful period in the club’s history.
“In the situation in which the world is, especially in Ukraine, to live moments like these is a privilege,” he said. “But it will be historic only if we win. We only remember the winner.”
For the second year in a row, French clubs make up three of the four finalists in the major European club competitions.
The salary cap question will continue to be asked if the French grip tightens in years to come, but attention will be squarely on the action on Friday for one of club rugby’s showpiece games.
The final may be symptomatic of a French monopoly, but should Lyon and Toulon summon the spirit of the semi-finals, it could be an incredible encounter and fitting end to a memorable Challenge Cup campaign.
Watch the European Challenge Cup final between Lyon and Toulon from 7.15pm on BT Sport 1 on Friday 27 May.