The Toulon experiment is hardly new to elite sport. See Real Madrid. Or go further back to the 1970s when New York Cosmos temporarily wooed a US audience.
It was the millions of Time Warner chief executive Steve Ross that enticed Pelé to leave Brazil in 1975. Franz Beckenbauer followed along several other ageing football masters.
Mourad Boudjellal has transferred this importation plan to rugby. A key difference being Toulon's sustained success.
"It's not a level playing field, is it, realistically?" Leo Cullen rhetorically mused. This is supported by the French cap of 15 foreign players. "Yeah, just the 15," Cullen added. "Don't know how they get around the salary cap."
Leinster, Ulster and Munster are allowed to recruit five foreigners but can only realistically afford two elite players.
“It’s inevitable that more and more players are going to come over here,” said
, the Toulon lock. “I’m a true Kiwi and I love southern hemisphere and All Black rugby but after being over here and experiencing what you have both on the field and off the field it’s an amazing rugby environment.
“Looking at the reality of life and where it has gone, rugby is an opportunity but it is also a career so they have to make the most of it. The decision whether to stay with international rugby or move for financial reasons is always going to be there. How do you stop that? I don’t know. Do you want to stop it? I don’t know, but a solution needs to be found for it because you don’t want all this movement from players to ruin international rugby because, at the end of the day, that is what holds rugby as so unique in terms of the sporting environment.”
Perhaps the most captivating aspect of Boudjellal's spending is it brings the greatest of enemies into the same platoon. For example, Williams and Bakkies Botha.
“I didn’t know Bakkies very well off the field. On the field I knew him well enough. We just got this respect for each other. It works very well.”
The Galáctico policy in Madrid has yielded trophies but no dynasty. Toulon find themselves on the cusp of a third successive European title. The secret, seemingly, is men with their legacy already secured bonding over a common impulse to resist failure.
“The beauty of this place is they really look after us,” Williams explained. “You’ve got such a group of older guys that it doesn’t affect the team if you don’t train as much as you would when you were younger.
“It’s like anything, once you’ve got it in your blood, that competitive streak, you can’t really lose it so as soon as we get on the field we instantly click. We’re there so we may as well win,” he defines as the overriding attitude.
Williams, an All Black for 10 years (2002-12) with 77 caps and a
winner’s medal, is the ideal Toulon recruit.
“I think the more you have been on winning teams it helps to bring the team together, gives us an advantage over the other teams who haven’t won the accolades more than anything.”
Every team is beatable. Williams learned that in the most painful fashion on October 6th, 2007 in Cardiff. That was the day his Toulon team-mate Frédéric Michalak shredded New Zealand’s seemingly unbreakable defence as France shocked the World Cup (again) with a 20-18 victory.
There was a hint of a forward pass leading up to that try but the referee disagreed.
"Wayne Barnes is coming down. I've never forgotten him. But lads, I don't hold any grudges. The down times are the most beneficial in a rugby player's career. It's always in the forefront when I go into battle."
At 33, Williams will retire this summer and move to London, stepping away relatively early for a lock but his knees and shoulders “are no good”.
“The zimmer frames? They come off on Thursday.”