Reasons Why Toulon Can Win the Heineken Cup
With all eight quarter-final slots now filled, the Heineken Cup moves into its knockout phase. All eyes now turn to the teams that have a chance of winning the biggest prize in European rugby.
The perennial big boys are all through. Irish heavyweights Leinster and Munster topped their groups, while the cream of the Top 14 and Aviva Premiership is represented by Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse, Saracens and Leicester.
But rugby's nouveau riche are the ones to watch this year. Toulon took the competition by storm last season, winning the final in dramatic style against rivals Clermont.
Here are five reasons why Bernard Laporte's men can do it again.
Home Quarter- and Semi-Finals
Home advantage in a knockout competition is a big bonus for any team in any sport worldwide, but for Toulon, that advantage is extra special.
The fanatical support shown by the Stade Mayol faithful is almost unique in world rugby. The famous Pilou-Pilou chant is similar to New Zealand's Haka, except it's performed by 15,000 fans. It's enough to make the hairs on any player's neck stand up.
Toulon will enjoy a home fixture against Leinster in the quarter-finals, and they've also bagged one for the semi-finals. Munster or Toulouse will be the unlucky side making the trip to the Mediterranean coast if all goes as planned.
Toulon are blessed with a range of kicking options, which helps them in both attacking and defensive situations.
Captain Jonny Wilkinson knocked over all 15 points in the French side's hard-fought win against the Glasgow Warriors on Saturday. His left boot is as trusty as ever, meaning his side can rely on him for a regular drip-feed of points, even in tight games.
Other than Jonny, Toulon have other options.
Australia's Matt Giteau is a kicker who's almost as accomplished as Wilkinson. And at full-back, Delon Armitage offers one of the biggest boots in European rugby.
If Wilkinson's at the bottom of a ruck, Toulon still have the firepower to clear their lines and send the opposition scurrying back toward their own try-line.
Flush with cash from owner Mourad Boudjellal, Toulon have an extensive squad of international-calibre players.
This means they can rotate fatigued men out of the squad and replace them with equally experienced professionals.
RaboDirect Pro12 teams have long been accused of fielding their 15 strongest players in the Heineken Cup, taking advantage of the league's automatic Heineken qualification system.
And while the French Top 14 is a fiercely competitive league, comments from Toulon Coach Laporte suggest his mind might be on bigger things. As ESPN reported, Laporte said:
There has to come a time when someone says 'stop'. The problem is that there is only me and Guy [Novès, Toulouse's manager] who speak out. The Top 14 is crap and everyone is bored stiff.
Toulon can keep up their challenge in the Top 14 while making an assault on the Heineken Cup without ever fielding a significantly weakened side.
Diversity in Their Game
Pace and power up front mixed with slick hands in the back? Toulon have it.
Laporte's pack is enormous.
Andrew Sheridan, Martin Castrogiovanni and Ali Williams are guys who know how to win ugly. On wet nights, such as the one in Glasgow on Saturday, they set the platform for Wilkinson to kick Toulon to victory.
Behind them is a back line capable of outflanking most in world rugby. The hands of Giteau, the power of Mathieu Bastareaud and the pace of Bryan Habana add up to a fearsome attacking machine.
Warm, dry conditions on the Mediterranean coast suit attacking rugby, and Toulon are certainly set up to exploit that. When the going gets tough, though, they also know how to shove their way through.
They Know How to Win
They're the new boys when it comes to European rugby's powerhouses, but Toulon know how to win. They lifted the Heineken Cup for the first time in their history last year, and with it, they tasted life in the big leagues.
But that's not to say their success was a fluke. Toulon's squad is packed full of stars who have won the biggest trophies in rugby.
Wilkinson, Bakkies Botha, Danie Rossouw and Williams are all men who have won World Cups.
Toulon's 'galatico' squad members have a host of medals to their names. These are not players dazzled by the blinding lights of success; they've been there before.
Leinster won back-to-back Heineken Cups in 2011 and 2012, and the Leicester Tigers managed it in 2001 and 2002. Don't bet against Toulon pulling off the same trick at Millennium Stadium in May.