French rugby Top 14 approaches climax in Paris

Paris (AFP) - Wallabies Matt Giteau and Drew Mitchell are amongst the "last of the Mohicans" looking to sign off their Toulon careers with one more trophy as the Top 14 comes to a climax in Paris on Sunday.

In-form Clermont, the perennial chokers, are all that stands between the Aussie duo and South Africa's Juanne Smith, and a glorious swansong in the south of France.

Giteau is heading off to play in Japan, while Mitchell and Smith are retiring, with Argentina's Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe's future uncertain as he hasn't been offered a new contract.

It means the golden generation of Toulon's global stars that won three straight European crowns under Bernard Laporte are all but gone, with the "last of the Mohicans" looking forward to a final outing.

With Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams, Carl Hayman and the great Jonny Wilkinson already in retirement, only flying Springbok wing Bryan Habana will remain of Laporte's stars who reigned in Europe from 2013-2015 and reached three straight Top 14 finals from 2012-2014 too.

In fact, this will be Toulon's fifth Top 14 final in six years, although they have lifted the Bouclier de Brennus only once in that period.

With first choice fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc struggling for fitness and semi-final hero Anthony Belleau still a "work in progress" according to scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde, Giteau is in the running for a rare start at the Stade de France, either at No.10 or inside centre.

He made a major impact after replacing compatriot James O'Connor at inside centre on 53 minutes in the 18-15 win over La Rochelle last weekend.

- 'Phenomenal' -

And Laporte for one cannot speak highly enough of the versatile back's talents.

"He's phenomenal, maybe the best player I've coached," Laporte told Midi Olympique.

"In fact, that's not the word, one should rather say manager -- because Matt knows how to do everything, to perfection!"

Mitchell will likely start, even if Habana is fit to play -- the South African like former New Zealand captain Ma'a Nonu missed the semi-final through injury but were back in training this week.

"Drew's a big character with a huge ego. But most of all he's a fierce competitor," added Laporte, who admitted to having had several "muscular" run-ins with Mitchell over the years, not least when he dropped him for the 2015 European Champions Cup semi-finals.

"He managed to convince me to pick him for the final," said Laporte, "and he responded in the best way possible" by scoring a mazy solo try.

As for Smith, Laporte described him as "a foot soldier, always ready for combat".

"On the pitch, he's a rock."

Toulon will have a tough ask repeating their European final triumphs over Clermont in 2013 and 2015, though.

They finished nine points behind them in the regular season table and while Toulon were labouring to beat 14-man La Rochelle, Clermont ran in five tries to dump reigning champions Racing out of the semi-finals despite being reduced themselves to 14 men.

But the choker tag is a hard one to shake for a Clermont side that has made a habit of losing major finals.

Three times they've finished runners up in the European Cup, 11 times in the French league championship and even once in the European Challenge Cup.

Over the last 20 years alone, they've lost 10 finals, although they did win the Top 14 in 2010 and the Challenge Cup in 1999 and 2007.

Of the two sides, Clermont have played the better rugby this year, reaching the European Champions Cup final, and eliminating Toulon at the quarter-final stage.

Clermont scored 19 more tries and 126 more points over the course of the regular season than Toulon, and coach Frank Azema is confident they can get the final monkey off their backs.

"To be honest, I don't even know how many weve lost," he said wryly. "We need to play how we know to, and then we'll see."

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