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French giants Toulon have many strengths but also areas that Ulster can exploit


Matt Giteau of Toulon

Matt Giteau of Toulon

Getty Images

Bryan Habana of Toulon

Bryan Habana of Toulon

Getty Images

Matt Giteau of Toulon

They have it all really. The money, the squad and the silverware. What more could they want?

And therein lies the conundrum, namely have Toulon either been sated by the success that has already been achieved, assisted by the huge amounts of cash which have been splashed by multi-millionaire owner Mourad Boudjellal, or does their team of star talents really have the sufficient hunger to push the boundaries further and secure a third successive European title?

Yes, it's the multi-million euro question yet to be answered.

They have assembled a squad of sufficient ability but their own approach to achieving excellence may not quite match the obsessive desire to succeed which drove the now retired Jonny Wilkinson to end his playing days there with such notable high achievement.

Mind you, it's a wait and see on that score as the current Top 14 champions - yes, Jonny bowed out last season as Toulon made off with a very rare domestic and European double - are still well placed in second in their league after nine games and opened up on Sunday with a functional home victory over the Scarlets to top Pool Three.

Just a glance at the array of talent head coach Bernard Laporte has to play with still leaves a more than favourable impression. Leigh Halfpenny, Bryan Habana, Maxime Mermoz, Mathieu Bastareaud, Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the immense Steffon Armitage and his brother Delon all collect their wages at the Stade Felix Mayol.

But there is still vulnerability. Since Wilkinson retired, they have not really found a pure out-half to fill the sizeable gap left by the England World Cup winner.

The flaky Frederic Michalak has been tried out, as has James O'Connor, but the more functional alternative now seems to be Wallaby Matt Giteau, who has been moved inside from midfield where he was outstanding last season as a foil to Wilkinson who is at least still around the place as skills coach.

There have also been off-field ructions too with Boudjellal very publicly demanding the return of Habana, Botha and Fernandez Lobbe during the Rugby Championship, and this despite the agreed international windows, when matters were looking a little bit wobbly for the current Top 14 champions last month.

Threats of court action and freezing their pay were all aired by the controversial club owner earlier in the season after the home defeat to Stade Francais and it seems that comic book publisher Boudjellal is determined to pursue this matter by taking the IRB to court over the long-standing understanding that players are still to be paid by clubs while on international duty.

And that's not all when you also factor in his outbursts over Halfpenny's fitness while the stories linking Steffon Armitage with a now apparently aborted move to Bath to boost his chances of a place in England's World Cup squad hardly suggested that last season's European Player of the Year is thinking that big about his current employers.

While there is also the fact that Toulon were far from impressive in seeing off the Scarlets 28-18 last Sunday and even came into Europe off the back of losing at Toulouse in the Top 14. No-one, though, can be flippant enough to discount them as again being real contenders for some silverware.

Talent to burn in a big game pack

It's not really rocket science, the French side will come to the Kingspan needing to smash Ulster up front and establish dominance in this area to pretty much dictate everything else that unfolds.

So, you start in the trenches and, in this area, Toulon's back row immediately jumps out as still being one of the best around. The presence of Steffon Armitage is central to the side's physicality and he has gloriously revived his career with some massive performances.

Negate Armitage's impact and Ulster will have done well though he is only part of the package as, alongside the England international, are the hard-grafting Argentinian Fernandez Lobbe and former Springbok Juan Smith.

Each bring something different to the mix and keeping them all under the cosh is, well, going to take some performance.

It's not impossible though and it is worth noting that both Fernandez Lobbe and Smith are the wrong side of 30 as is second row enforcer Bakkies Botha who recently hit 35, but is still cutting it at international level.

Alongside Botha is none other than former All Black Ali Williams who is also vastly experienced and a formidable operator at the lineout.

Yes, it's a notably cosmopolitan side with former All Black Hayman leading them from what is a typically beefy front row with loose-head prop Xavier Chiocci and hooker Jean-Charles Orioli having considerable experience under their belts even though they are both a decade younger than the soon to be 35-year-old Hayman.

It is also certainly worth taking on board that this will be their second game in less than a week which might be another chink of light for Ulster as they prepare to do battle at the coal-face though Toulon certainly have the resources to make changes without weakening their hand.

Backline's mix of pace and brute force

Giteau is the man who makes everything tick. He topped the carries stats in Sunday's win over the Scarlets with 16 - Juan Smith was next but four behind - and was just short of matching his winger David Smith in the number of metres made.

Giteau gives Toulon their attacking shape through his key decision making. If Ulster can upset his rhythm, then the rest of the backline should suffer.

Mind you, what a backline. Mermoz brings subtlety and vision to the party while the beast that is Bastareaud does exactly what you expect by using his pile-driving power to smash tacklers and create space for others though at times he can drift out of games.

And then we have a certain Bryan Habana ready to bring all his guile and ability into play while now that Halfpenny has recovered from his somewhat controversial groin problem, Toulon have his mighty goal-kicking skills to wheel out as well to punish Ulster.

Yes, there are weaknesses but they still seem to be somewhat outweighed by Toulon's overwhelming strength.

Belfast Telegraph