Gerry Thornley: Toulouse have found what they were looking for
Former stalwarts like ex-Bandon RFC coach Sonnes helping club reclaim its old identity
Toulouse assistant coach Regis Sonnes. “We have a very young team, but with big potential and we are growing.” Photograph: Manuel Blondeau/Icon Sport via Getty Images
It’s still early days in the 2018-19 season. They don’t hand out trophies in January any more. But Toulouse are back alright, and seemingly with a vengeance.
The four-time winners arrive in the RDS to face the other four-time winners on the crest of a wave, topping Pool One with four wins from four and unbeaten in their last 12 games.
It’s funny how seasons can hinge on one or two games, or even one or two moments. Toulouse didn’t look any great shakes at the start of October. Had Freddie Burns completed his endgame touchdown in the opening round in Bath, and had Leinster seen out their comeback in the Stade Ernst Wallon a week later, Toulouse would almost have been out of contention then and there.
Instead Maxime Medard stayed in the moment to nudge the ball out of Burns’ hand, and then completed a stunning turnover try against Leinster. Toulouse arrive in Dublin also looking a more dangerous and complete side than then.
But joint-coach Régis Sonnes admits those two games kick-started their season.
“The first game in Bath was very good for our confidence and we stayed in Bath after the game, and we had a very good night together, like a team. We had a good time, and then against Leinster at home was incredible for us, because we did not expect it, and with a lot of young players in their first European Cup, we won. We earned a lot of confidence and it was great for us at that moment.”
Now, Sonnes sees this Saturday’s game as another benchmark in their season.
“We took the H Cup as a new experience because we have a very young team with big potential and we start very well. So now we want to see against the best team in Europe what could be our compartment and the quality of our game. We are unbeaten in the last 12 games and it’s a good moment for us to see where we are really, and what is our level.”
Sonnes apologised unnecessarily for the quality of his English which was sharpened by his two years as director of rugby at Bandon Grammar School and as head coach of Bandon RFC from 2016 to 2018.
He left his mark.
In the 2016-17 season, Bandon Grammar School reached the semi-finals of the Munster Schools Senior Cup for the second time in their history, and first since 1982. They also reached the final of the Bowen Shield. The following year, the school reached the quarter-finals of the Senior Cup and semi-finals of the Junior Cup.
“He had a huge impact,” says the school’s games master, George Bradfield. “He brought a professionalism, but wasn’t just concerned with coaching the rugby teams. He had a very real interest in every player’s individual development and assessed them every Sunday. His assessment of games on video was also very detailed. He’s a very easy-going lad but gets things done in an easy-going manner.
“Some of us are going up to Dublin to see him before the game on Saturday. Watching Toulouse now you can see his approach. He would have our boys running the ball from anywhere, from our own line, which used to frighten me. As a Munster school it took time to adapt. He liked us to play with a lot of width and not kick the ball much.”
Bandon RFC, meanwhile, won the Munster Junior Cup for the first time in their history, beating Young Munster in the final.
“The Munster Junior Cup is one of the most difficult competitions in the country to win,” says Bradfield. “There is usually around 40 teams competing and some of the second teams from the senior clubs take it very seriously. For a country club it is not an easy competition to win.”
The following season, they won the Munster Junior League for only the second time.
“I was looking for a new culture, with new players who were not professional. It was a first experience for me, and my family enjoyed it a lot,” says Sonnes of his wife Delphine, daughter Linon (now 16) and son Jules (now 14).
A keen swimmer and surfer since he was 10, Sonnes brought his surfboard to west Cork.
“When the time and the conditions were right I tried to surf in Ireland. It was great. The weather was cold, no people, but they were very good waves.”
He has always seen rugby as a means of broadening his, and his family’s, life experiences.
“My project is to try to see all around the world. I prefer to do my trips during my life [career], to spend my time in the country to meet people, to understand the culture and now I have very good friends in Spain and in Ireland. It is my philosophy, and now my family is with me.”
Taking a time-out from the all-consuming pressures of professional sport is typical of such a free-thinking spirit.
A flanker with Toulouse when they won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995, he had made the French A team and, in the estimation of Laurent Depret, a rugby journalist from the Paris-based RMC Sport, could have gone to the 1995 World Cup.
“But after the title in 1995 he made an announcement to the rest of the squad. He informed them he was taking a break from rugby to go surfing in Mexico. The other players and coaches were shocked. He was only 22. But that is typical of his philosophy on life. He believes a happy man makes a happy player or a happy coach.”
Sonnes came back to be part of another Toulouse title success in 1997. With Brive, they reached the Heineken Cup final of 1998 when losing to Bath, and after finishing his career with Agen and in Spain, he coached with Agen and Narbonne before coaching CRC Madrid to the Cope del Rey and then the Spanish national team for two years.
For four years he was forwards coach with Bordeaux-Begles before again surprising all and sundry by relocating to Bandon. He’d intended staying longer, but could not resist Toulouse’s calling.
“Ugo [Mola] is a good friend,” he says of his co-coach and former team-mate, “and the president also. When I played in Toulouse, Didier [Lacroix] was ‘6’ and I was ‘7’. Coming back I met a lot of people I played with. Jean Cazalbou is the manager, he was the ‘9’, and Emile Ntamack is now the director of the academy and Thomas Castaignède is on the committee.
“When Toulouse call you it is very, very difficult to say no. To tell the lads in Bandon was very difficult but it was a huge experience at the top, top level, with one of the best clubs in Europe in history. Now, we are not the best, but it was very interesting for me as a trainer, to see if I can be good at this level.”
With Sonnes on board, Toulouse are also back to playing the kind of rugby introduced by Pierre Villepreux and Jean-Claude Skrela in the early 1980s and continued for the next two decades by Guy Novès, under whom Toulouse won a further nine championships and four Heineken Cups in his extraordinary 22-year reign as head coach.
Alas, their decline set in toward the end of his watch. They won the last of those four European crowns in 2010, and the last of those nine French Championships (and a record 19 overall) in 2012.
They reached the semi-finals for 20 consecutive years from 1994 to 2013, and again in 2015, but not since.
Two seasons ago Toulouse finished 12th in the Top 14, luckily scraping past Connacht in the pool stages before losing 41-16 away to Munster in the quarter-finals.
Mola stayed, as did forwards coach William Servat, but backs coach Jean-Baptiste Élissalde and academy director Fabien Pelous moved on. Didier Lacroix replaced René Bouscatel as president and appointed Émile Ntamack as the club’s new academy manager.
Toulouse could not compete financially with clubs backed by multi-millionaire benefactors, and their first European Challenge Cup was used to blood many of the young French players now in the squad.
Last season Toulouse surpassed expectations by finishing third, albeit they were again beaten in le barrage, this time by eventual champions Castres.
Last summer Sonnes was recruited, with other former players, Jean Bouilhou and Clément Poitrenaud, joining as lineout and skills coaches.
In 18 Top 14 and European matches, they have scored 59 tries at over four per game, albeit conceding 39. In their four Heineken Champions Cup games to date, Toulouse have made 64 offloads, more than any other team in the competition (Leinster have made 31).
Their transitioning from defence to attack is lethal, witness that match-winning try against Leinster. Nothing about that surprised Leinster, although Toulouse’s fitness did. They are the only side not to concede a try in the final quarter over the first four rounds.
Since his match-turning 25-minute cameo as a replacement outhalf against Leinster, the livewire Dupont has re-established himself at scrumhalf.
The crowds are returning too. Traditionally always one of the best supported clubs in France, in 2015-16 Toulouse had an average attendance of 17,433, the third highest in the Top 14.
But the following season this fell to 15,255, the fourth biggest in the Top 14, and two seasons ago their average of 15,560 was the fifth highest in the Top 14.
But this season, Toulouse are averaging 18,086 per home game, behind only Bordeaux-Begles and, fractionally, Clermont Auvergne.
“In Toulouse we have had a lot of players who have played for the club for a long time and we need to connect with the people from Toulouse,” says Sonnes. “There is a good atmosphere in the stadium and it is positive for everybody, and if we win, it’s perfect.”
For Arnaud David, a rugby journalist with the Sud Ouest newspaper, Toulouse are also a more balanced team now.
“Their defence is far more effective than in previous years. They kick the ball more. They are not afraid to lose possession but they are very good at counter-attacking if they see disruption in your defensive line, from turnovers. It is the old Toulouse. They have rediscovered their identity.
“Compared to Toulouse in the last years with Noves, with a lot of powerful players, it is a more balanced team with young players who are much more mobile and dynamic.”
“Their biggest back might be Huget, at 92kilos, who is not a giant. Thomas Ramos is 80kilos. But they are quick and are good rugby players technically, and they’ve got X factor with Cheslin Kolbe, ” he says of the goose-stepping, side-stepping Springboks flyer.
“When they play off turnovers, he is the first one to create a break in the defence. Offloading is also a big part of their game but they know when to do it and when not to do it far more than in the past.”
So, can Toulouse be a great club again?
“I don’t know,” says Sonnes after giving this some thought.
“We are growing. We are working hard. The new dynamic starts one or two years ago. Last year they finished third in the league, this year we are second and have had very good results in Europe. There is a long way to go. We have a very young team, but with big potential and we are growing. We don’t know the future but I hope we have a good future.”