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Page last updated at 20:17 GMT, Thursday, 22 May 2008 21:17 UK

Europe's rugby giants

HEINEKEN CUP FINAL
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff Date: Sat, 24 May Kick-off: 1700 BST
Coverage: Live on Sky Sports, BBC Sport website and Radio 5 Live

Toulouse captain Fabien Pelous lifts the Heineken Cup in 2005
Toulouse have an unrivalled pedigree in the Heineken Cup

By Phil Harlow

Ian McGeechan and the Lions; Jonny Wilkinson and injuries; Austin Healey and opinions. There are some things in rugby union that just go together.

And you can add Toulouse and the Heineken Cup to that list.

Toulouse number eight Shaun Sowerby
It's a massive club in every sense

Toulouse number eight Shaun Sowerby
For all the claims of Leicester, Wasps and Munster, Toulouse are the Heineken Cup team. They have been there from the start, getting the whole tournament under way with a routine 54-10 win over Romania's Farul Constanta in 1995.

And the aristocrats of French rugby have gone from strength to strength in the tournament ever since.

Winners of the biggest club tournament in the European game in 1996, 2003 and 2005, Toulouse also made the final in 2004 and are preparing for their fifth final against Munster on Saturday.

"The Heineken Cup is indispensable to us," says Toulouse's remarkable coach Guy Noves.

"Toulouse has won the French championship many times, and our sponsors and supporters wanted us to show ourselves more on the international stage."

The unique character of French rugby's traditional giants can take some getting used to, but one "outsider" in South African number eight Shaun Sowerby has taken the club to his heart.

"It really is a special club," Sowerby told BBC Sport.

"It's the fourth biggest city in France and the place just lives for rugby. The south of France is a real rugby hotbed and I think only Perpignan could even come close in terms of the passion of the fans and the town. It's a massive club in every sense."

Sowerby joined Toulouse's Parisian rivals Stade Francais when he first moved to Europe from Natal.

Stade enjoy one of the most star-studded squads in the sport, with the likes of Juan-Martin Hernandez, Christophe Dominici and Sergio Parisse on their books, but the club has never really cracked the Heineken Cup and Sowerby is positive he made the right decision.

TOULOUSE'S HEINEKEN CUP PEDIGREE:
Tournament wins: 1996, 2003, 2005
Matches won: 66
Matches lost: 24
Most appearances: Fabien Pelous (69)
Top point scorer: Jean-Baptiste Elissalde (378)
Top try scorer: Vincent Clerc (27)
"The reason I changed teams when the opportunity presented itself was the history that Toulouse has," he said.

"It's by far the most successful and biggest team in France. Over the last few years, Stade Francais have done really well, they have a really ambitious president and are extremely well marketed.

"But I'd say Toulouse is more the traditional powerhouse - always in black and always winning trophies."

In recent years, that tradition and culture of success has largely been built on the foundations laid by Noves, a man who must qualify as the King of Toulouse.

The 54-year-old former France winger played all his club rugby for Toulouse, winning the French championship in 1985 and 1986 before ascending to the coaching role in 1993.

Spanning the amateur and professional eras, the combustible Noves is the heart and soul of the club with seven French championships, three Heineken Cups and two French Cups coming to the club under his stewardship.

With the skill of an Arsene Wenger or Sir Alex Ferguson, Noves has assembled a string of title-winning sides with top-class talents like captain Fabien Pelous, Thierry Dusautoir, Byron Kelleher, Yannick Jauzion and Cedric Heymans forming the backbone of the latest version.

Toulouse coach Guy Noves
Noves has collected trophies at an astonishing rate for Toulouse
"Guy Noves sets the tone at the club and he has done for a very long time," said Sowerby.

"There are certain values that the club has and most of those come from him. He's got an incredible record and to last that long at any club, let alone one of the biggest in Europe, is just amazing.

"It starts with him and everyone else just follows his lead."

But for all Toulouse's Heineken Cup success it cannot be forgotten that Munster have a real history in the tournament as well, winning the trophy in 2006 and reaching two other finals.

"It is a fitting final because Munster and Toulouse are both special clubs," said Sowerby.

"Maybe you could add Leicester as well, but Munster and Toulouse are probably the most successful and consistent European teams.

"It's two teams that play a very different style of rugby so it really is set up as a great final. It's a neutral's choice of a final.

"Munster obviously have some key players but I think their main strength is that they are a really well-organised and compact team.

606: DEBATE
"You can see the collective ability and force and that's what makes them as good as they are.

"Certainly the kicking of Ronan O'Gara, the presence of Paul O'Connoll are definite factors but far and away it's their collective ability that makes them as good as they are.

"Obviously there's a few nerves for such a big occasion, but there's a lot of guys who have played in the Heineken Cup final before, some more than once.

"Some of them have won it and the coaching staff have been there and done it over a long period so we should be well-equipped to handle it."


see also
Heineken Cup final lowdown
22 May 08 |  Rugby Union
The secret of Munster's success
22 May 08 |  Munster
Munster v Toulouse (Sat)
21 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Saracens 16-18 Munster
27 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Heineken Cup photos
27 Apr 08 |  Rugby Union
Munster 23-19 Biarritz
20 May 06 |  European Club
Munster's mission
18 May 06 |  European Club
Tigers retain European Cup
25 May 02 |  European


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