No regrets over Halfpenny Lions leave - Cockerill

Leigh Halfpenny (AFP)
Leigh Halfpenny (AFP)

Paris - Toulon's outgoing coach Richard Cockerill claimed he had no regrets that Leigh Halfpenny abandoned his team to join the British and Irish Lions despite losing the Top 14 final to Clermont.

Halfpenny was the star of Toulon's 18-15 semi-final victory over La Rochelle a week ago in Marseille but opted to skip Sunday's final in Paris to head to New Zealand for the Lions tour.

His replacement as Toulon's kicker, youngster Anthony Belleau, hit the woodwork with two penalties, costing his side six points as Toulon lost 22-16.

But asked if he regretted Halfpenny's choice to abandon ship, former Leicester Tigers coach Cockerill was firm.

"The game was very tight, six points difference. We hit the post twice and we played to the 83rd minute and were just short," he said.

Cockerill will leave the job he held as a caretaker for just seven games to be replaced by Fabien Galthie ahead of next season.

"Anthony's kicked well and the difference is (tiny)," said Cockerill after his last game in charge.

"He'll learn from this experience but, like I said, kickers win you the game and don't lose you the game - we had other opportunities."

Toulon, the European champions three years in a row from 2013 to 2015, have had a turbulent campaign, going through three coaches and looking at one point as if they would miss the Top 14 playoffs.

But Cockerill said that if this was a "terrible" season for the club, then Toulon were in good shape.

"Everybody keeps telling me Toulon had a terrible season but they've been to the quarter-finals of the (European) Cup and lost in the (Top 14) final by the smallest of margins," he said.

"If that's a terrible season, they will build. They have a new coach who's a good guy and they will be a force again."

Clermont hooker Benjamin Kayser paid tribute to man-of-the-match scrum-half Morgan Parra, who kicked 17 of his side's points and battled to the end despite looking battered and shattered.

"For me he was enormous, he's a leader, he's just a little guy of 80kg who gives his whole life for a team, who throws himself under the bus the whole time," said Kayser.

"Against Racing (in the semi-final) I was screaming at him to stop defending the 'pick-and-goes' because at one point it looked as if he wouldn't be able to finish the match because he was completely smashed up.

"But I owe him life and death because what he gave today was phenomenal. He handles it well. He's a huge competitor and a massive guy."

Kayser, though, was furious with the French press for having reminded the team during the build-up of their poor finals' record.

They had lost three European Champions Cup finals in the last five years, two of those to Toulon, and 11 out of 12 French top-flight finals - until Sunday.

"It's a huge pleasure and reward for lots of hard work, the fruits of power and psychological strength," he said of the victory.

"We weren't helped by the repeated failures (of the past), we weren't helped by anyone - a shitty press that did nothing but regurgitate failures since the 1800s even though we weren't even born."

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