European giants Toulouse ready to add a fifth star to their chests

Antoine Dupont among young stars who can help end 11-year wait for the Champions Cup

Antoine Dupont in action during Toulouse’s win over Ulster in Belfast in December. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Antoine Dupont in action during Toulouse’s win over Ulster in Belfast in December. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty

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One of the great maxims of French rugby is that when Toulouse go well so to do Les Bleus. This theory regained credence in the few years when Toulouse’s rejuvenation in turn prompted a long overdue revival by the national team.

But although Toulouse won their first title in seven years two seasons ago, akin to France not winning a Six Nations since 2010, the rouge et noir have not conquered Europe at club level since 2010 either.

No less than Leinster, the inaugural champions want to break new ground by claiming a fifth star.

“It’s written in their DNA,” explains Laurent Depret, the longtime French rugby journalist with RCM Radio.

“They won the first ever Heineken Cup in ‘95-96 after extra-time,” he adds in reference to the dramatic win over Cardiff in the Arms Park. “Yes, it is something massive for them. I would say that they led by example in making the other French clubs think of the Heineken Cup as something different, not more important than Top 14, but something different.”

“I’m sure that if the club president, Didier Lacroix, had to choose between the Top14 and the Heineken Cup, he would want the club to hold the Heineken Cup again.”

After conquering Europe again in 2003, ‘05 and ‘10, Toulouse won back-to-back French titles in 2011 and 2012, but then the club began to wane.

All four of their European Cups, along with nine French Championship titles, were won during the unparalleled 22-year reign of Guy Novès as head coach, when Toulouse hunted for gems as well as developing talent from within.

Toulouse captain Emile Ntamack (centre) and teammates celebrate their victory in the inaugural 1995-96 European Cup. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Muller/Getty/AFP
Toulouse captain Emile Ntamack (centre) and teammates celebrate their victory in the inaugural 1995-96 European Cup. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Muller/Getty/AFP

But the core of a great team grew old together, players like Fabien Pelous, Census Johnston, Thierry Dusautoir, Cedric Heymans and Vincent Clerc.

In 2013-14, after reaching the semi-finals of the French Championship for 20 seasons in succession, Toulouse lost a quarter-final at home to Racing, and that 21-16 defeat would be repeated at the same stage two seasons later.

Meanwhile, Toulouse also became relative soft touches in Europe after a quarter-final loss to Edinburgh in the 2011-12 season. Over the next five seasons there were three pool exits along with two quarter-final beatings by Munster in Thomond Park.

In that same season Toulouse limped to a 12th place finish in the Top 14, albeit 15 points clear of the relegation zone. Hence, for the only time in the 25-year history of the competition, the club did not even participate in the Champions Cup in 2017-18 and, instead, suffered the indignity of being banished to the Challenge Cup.

Blessing

It may have been a blessing. After that difficult first season when Ugo Mola succeeded Novès as director or rugby, Lacroix (newly elected as club president in May 2017) set about reviving the club. Lacroix is Toulouse born and bred, who was initially rejected by the club as being too small before eventually following his older brother into the academy at 13, and effectively has been with Stade ever since.

Necessity being the mother of invention, there was a renewed emphasis on the Toulouse culture of bringing through their own players, or signing young players, and playing their own brand of rugby, with the Challenge Cup serving as a useful breeding ground.

They are brothers in arms

Lacroix, a brilliant backrower who won six Championships with Toulouse in a golden era between 1994 and 2001 and played in that inaugural 1996 European final in Cardiff, ensured all the coaching staff comprised of former players as he created a four-year project to rediscover Stade Toulousain’s ethos and greatness.

With Mola as director of rugby, Régis Sonnes, who played alongside Lacroix in the backrow on the Toulouse championship-winning side of 1994, ‘95 and ‘97, came aboard as the assistant/forwards coach at the start of the 2018-19 season after, famously, spending two years coaching Bandon RFC and Bandon Grammar School, where he left an indelible impression. Clement Poitrenaud came in as backs coach and Jerome Cazalbou (another teammate from the 90s) as team manager.

“They are brothers in arms,” as Depret puts it.

If they’re good enough, they’re old enough has traditionally been the Toulouse way and the quintet of French internationals returning from Six Nations duty are representative of this, namely Antoine Dupont (24), Romain Ntamack (21), Cyril Baille (27), Julien Marchand (25) and Dorian Aldegheri (27).

Marchand, a product of their academy, a powerful carrier with his low centre of gravity and strong as an ox over the ball, was made the club captain at 23 and is as much the poster boy of Stade Toulousain as either Dupont or Ntamack.

In the event, so dramatic was the effect that a four-year project yielded the bouclier de brennus in year one. Toulouse finished the season 15 points clear of Clermont, who they then beat 24-18 in the final to win an unequalled 20th title and first since 2012.

The World Cup hit Toulouse hard, with Racing and Clermont also suffering, and they were eighth when the 2019-20 Top 14 was abandoned last year.

Sonne also departed, deciding to take up the role of Director of Rugby at Agen, who have lost all 20 games in the Top 14 this season and are doomed to be relegated to the ProD2. But as his stint in Bandon demonstrates, Sonne always marched to his own beat.

“You have to take in the personality of Régis Sonnes, who is an incredible character,” says Depret, citing another example.

Regis Sonnes pictured ahead of a European clash with Bath in 2019. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Regis Sonnes pictured ahead of a European clash with Bath in 2019. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

After the 1995 French Championship final in Parc des Prince, when Toulouse retained their title, Sonne stood on the table in the dressingroom and asked for quietness. He was expected to be taken to the 1995 World Cup as part of the French team and his club teammates were expecting a song.

Instead he announced that he was going to take a year’s sabbatical so as to go surfing in Mexico, which he duly did before retuning when the side completed four titles in a row.

Sonne was replaced last year by Jean Bouilhou, a four-time winner of the bouclier and three-time Heineken Cup winner. A highly accomplished all-round blindside flanker, Trevor Brennan, for one, reckons Bouilhou should have won about 50 caps more than the two he did earn.

Bouilhou had been coaching with Montauban in the ProD2 and the change seems to have been fairly seamless. Despite last week’s humbling at home by Montpellier, the first time Toulouse have ever lost to them at home, this was only their second loss in 15 games and they remain atop the Top 14.

“That was a bad loss but their internationals were all in the stand,” says Arnaud David, a long-serving rugby writer with l’equipe and now sud oust.

“However they also lost Sofiane Guitoune in that game, who is a very important, creative player for them. He’s out for the rest of the season. That is a big blow.”

As to how Toulouse compare to the season before last, David says: “They are not on fire like they were two years ago but on their day they are still very, very good and some players have matured.

“Europe is a big challenge for players like Dupont and Ntamack. They have proved they are very good players with France but with their club it’s time for them to rise to another level, a level they lacked when they played in Europe against Exeter,” says David in reference to their 28-18 defeat in last September’s semi-final in Sandy Park.

“They didn’t control the match and they were not as efficient with Toulouse as they have been with France.”

Regrets

Furthermore, following Les Bleus’ anti-climactic defeat by Scotland last Friday week, Mola only welcomed back his French quintet this Monday.

Dupont admits the last game “leaves a bitter taste” and for all the praise heaped upon him, he does not think he had an especially good tournament.

“It’s a bit like the team. I don’t have the impression of having performed badly, but neither do I feel that I have given the maximum of potential. There are always regrets when I am not satisfied with the results.”

Turning their attention to Munster at short notice would appear challenging.

“I had my Sunday off,” confirmed Dupont. “We knew that when we came back, there would be very quick deadlines. We didn’t have much time to breathe, but we were prepared for it. We spend more and more time on recovery.”

Besides which, there is the lure of this win-or-bust tie against Munster.

“There is a great past between the two clubs. We all have memories of meetings against Munster, not necessarily happy for Toulouse, with the endless phases that the Irish can produce. It is a historical face to face. It’s just a shame there isn’t public fervor. It adds an extra soul.”

Cedric Heymans tries to stop Doug Howlett during Toulouse’s 2008 Champions Cup final defeat to Munster. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Cedric Heymans tries to stop Doug Howlett during Toulouse’s 2008 Champions Cup final defeat to Munster. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Dupont also likens it to France meeting Ireland.

“The game of Munster is comparable to the style of play of Ireland. We also saw it with the France team. Their characteristics are very strong and quite far from our philosophy and which prove to be formidably effective. We have the impression that they are not doing anything exceptional but they are doing everything right. We get used to them, we know them but it still works.”

The French win in Dublin was hailed as a major psychological breakthrough and fillip for Les Bleus – one they apparently celebrated late into the night – and coupled with that Toulouse win in Belfast, should ensure they are less spooked by the prospect of playing in Thomond Park when beaten out the gate in the quarter-final stage seven and four years ago.

“We haven’t talked too much about it but perhaps unconsciously, it can give more confidence in the preparation of the match and also on the scenario, if we are led to the score, to be able to come back. It’s pretty rare to win in Ireland and we’ve done it twice this year.”

A third would bring that fifth star closer into view.

Head-to-head results

Toulouse have played more matches against the Irish teams in the Heineken Champions Cup than any other team. In all, Toulouse have played 36 games against the four provinces.

Toulouse v Munster
1996-97: Toulouse 60 Munster 19.
1999-00: (semi-finals) Toulouse 25 Munster 31.
2002-03: (semi-finals) Toulouse 13 Munster 12.
2007-08: (final) Munster 16 Toulouse 13.
2013-14: (quarter-finals) Munster 47 Toulouse 23.
2016-17: (quarter-final) Munster 41 Toulouse 16.
Total: Played 6. Won 2, Drawn 0, Lost 4.

Toulouse v Leinster
1997-98: Leinster 25 Toulouse 34, Toulouse 38 Leinster 19.
2001-02: Leinster 40 Toulouse 10, Toulouse 43 Leinster 7.
2005-06: (quarter-finals) Toulouse 35 Leinster 41.
2007-08: Toulouse 33 Leinster 6, Leinster 20 Toulouse 13.
2009-10: (semi-finals) Toulouse 26 Leinster 16.
2010-11: (semi-finals) Leinster 32 Toulouse 23.
2018-19: Toulouse 28 Leinster 27, Leinster 29 Toulouse 13. (semi-finals) Leinster 30 Toulouse 12.
Total: Pl 12, Won 6, Drawn 0, Lost 6.

Toulouse v Ulster
1998-99: Toulouse 39 Ulster 3, Ulster 29 Toulouse 24, (quarter-finals) Ulster 15
Toulouse 13.
2000-01: Toulouse 35 Ulster 35, Ulster 25 Toulouse 29.
2006-07: Ulster 30 Toulouse 3, Toulouse 28 Ulster 13.
2015-16: Ulster 38 Toulouse 0, Toulouse 23 Ulster 25.
2020-21: (quarter-finals) Toulouse 36 Ulster 8.
Total: Pl 10, Won 4, Drawn 1, Lost 5

Toulouse v Connacht
2011-12: Connacht 10 Toulouse 36, Toulouse 24 Connacht 3.
2013-14: Toulouse 14 Connacht 16, Connacht 9 Toulouse 37.
2016-17: Connacht 23 Toulouse 21, Toulouse 19 Connacht 10.
2020-21: Toulouse 32 Connacht 17, Connacht 7 Toulouse 21.
Total: Pl 8, Won 6, Drawn 0, Lost 2.

Overall Total: Played 36, Won 18, Drawn 1, Lost 17.

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