Highlights - Glasgow Warriors vs ToulonMay 20
There will be a new name on the European Challenge Cup trophy this Friday when three-time European Cup winners RC Toulon take on maiden finalists Bristol Bears in what is shaping up to be a mouth-watering match-up.
The Bears go head to head with European giants Toulon in Aix-en-Provence looking to sign off an outstanding 2019/20 campaign with a first piece of major silverware since 1983.
Both sides are undefeated in this season’s tournament having coasted through the pool stages.
After qualifying for the knockout stages as number one seeds, Toulon narrowly edged out Scarlets in the last eight before putting Leicester Tigers to the sword in the semis.
Bristol were forced to work harder for their spot in the final. After thrashing the Dragons in the quarter-finals the Bears were taken to extra-time by French outfit Bordeaux-Begles before eventually sealing a 37-20 victory at Ashton Gate.
After defeat last week to Wasps denied them a first ever Premiership final appearance, the chance to end the season with European silverware is a tantalising prospect for head coach and Bears supremo, Pat Lam.
This is massive for us. We’ve worked so hard for this.
- Pat Lam, director of rugby
“This is massive for us. We’ve worked hard for this," he said.
"Right from the beginning, to have some tangible silverware would be the start of a process of trying to do this year in, year out.
"This week has all been about taking our learnings from what happened last week and then channelling all of the excitement of a final into making sure we tick off a lot of boxes, and making sure we are ready to go and get the performance that will give us the best chance of winning that silverware.”
While Toulon have reached this stage of the competition twice before, losing to Cardiff Blues in 2010 and to Biarritz Olympique in 2012, the Bears are in uncharted waters.
The West Country outfit have already seen off French opposition this season in the form of Stade Francais and, for lock Dave Attwood, Friday night will be a chance to renew some old friendships.
The 33-year-old England international made eight appearances for the French side while on loan to them during the 2017/18 season and still has friends at RCT.
“I had a great time in Toulon and still have lots of friends there,” he told the club's website.
“We stay in touch via social media and we have been in contact in the last few weeks. I love the club Toulon and the city – it’s a lovely place and I enjoyed my time there.”
Attwood, who has made 53 European appearances in 14 seasons including four this term, knows Bristol will have their work cut out to win their first European trophy, with Toulon having won all eight of their games in this season’s competition.
“It’s going to be a tough game against a very good team – they have some very talented players and experienced internationals, so we know it’s going to be a challenge for us,” he said.
Toulon will be hoping they can channel the spirit of their former selves as three-time winners of the Champions Cup during the club’s glory days from 2011 to 2015.
Once able to call upon the services of superstars like Jonny Wilkinson, Bryan Habana and Mitt Giteau, the team sheet has a more modest roll call in the modern age – but with the prospect of securing a first ever Challenge Cup on the horizon, the French side will be led into battle by one of the European game's greatest servants, Sergio Parisse.
“This is a young team and I am really happy to be a part of it. I really hope we can go on and win the title,” said Parisse, who skippered Toulon's Top 14 rivals Stade Francais in the 2011, 2013 and 2017 finals.
“We were very clinical in our turnovers and got two tries from them in the first half. We played some good rugby.
“Our set-piece was also very good against a Leicester side that is well known for being good in that area. Now we are looking forward to facing Bristol, who played an amazing game against Bordeaux-Begles.”
For one player, Friday night's final will mean that little bit more.
Bristol-born lock Joe Joyce has been there every step of the way in their rise from the depths of English rugby's second tier all the way to European rugby's top table.
The Bears were eighth in the Championship when the 26-year-old made his senior debut during the 2014 campaign. Since then he's suffered the disappointment of two play-off final defeats and a Premiership relegation.
“You dream about things like this,” Joyce told the club's website.
“In my first year, I think at Christmas time we were eighth in the Championship, so back then, it would have felt a long way off. But since the rebrand and when Pat Lam came in, and the vision we had, I think we’ve got here pretty quickly. We put ourselves out there to say that was what we wanted and now we’re here, it does feel special.
“We’ve always had the belief. From the outside, it might look like we’re overachieving or we’re ahead of schedule, but we’ve always had these goals in-house and we know we’ve got the ability to go and do this.
“It’s been bold – we’ve put our goals out there. At the beginning of the season this is what we said we wanted to achieve. We’re on step away now and Friday night is obviously going to be a tough challenge.”
Joyce knows the Bears face a huge test in Aix-en-Provence but says they will take confidence from a strong recent record against French opposition.
“When you look at what Toulon have done in the last 10 tears of European rugby and in France, it’s impressive, but we’re still very confident.
“French teams are always tough; they are always physical and unpredictable, and you just can’t let them get on the front foot. But we’ve gained confidence from some good results against French teams. In the last two season, we’ve beaten La Rochelle, Brive, Stade Francais, Bordeaux – and they are big teams, so with that in mind, it gives you confidence.”
Just 80 minutes now stands between Bristol and European silverware, and Joyce knows an enormous shift is required if the trophy is to accompany them back to the West Country.
But what would it mean to be holding the Challenge Cup trophy aloft late on Friday evening?
“You think about it, and it is special, isn’t it? You try not to think about the outcome because you get ahead of yourself, and we need to be process driven, but it’s difficult not think that on Friday night, you could be stood there with your teammates holding a European trophy for your hometown club.
“I feel lucky because people have come from all around the world to join this team, to be in this training facility, to play at Ashton Gate and try and win trophies, and potentially could be lifting a European trophy for the club on my doorstep, so it’s very special.”
The greatest stages require the greatest actors and few players get more bums off seats than Bristol Bears centre Semi Radrada.
Harry Randall, Ioan Lloyd, Callum Sheedy and Ben Earl have all been in outstanding form since the restart, but Radrada remains the club's only X-factor, world-class talent.
The Fijian-born flier spent a year at Toulon when he first switched codes from rugby league to union and the French giants will be all too aware of the danger posed by their former star.
The 28-year-old showcased his extraordinary power and pace in the quarter-finals, going 60 metres to score a phenomenal solo try as Bristol powered past the Dragons in the last eight.
His stellar performances have earned him a place on the shortlist for the European Player of the Year as the only nominee from the Challenge Cup.
In a match that could be decided by one moment of brilliance, Bristol will be looking to their blockbuster name to be the difference between heartbreak and history.
Watch Bristol Bears v Toulon from 7.15pm on Friday 16 October - live on BT Sport 2 HD on TV and online.