It's rare when Munster pay host to a club who actually have a better pedigree than themselves in European rugby, but when it comes to the Heineken Cup and trophy hauling, Stade Toulousain are in a league of their own. They truly are the crème de la crème.
This will only be their fourth meeting, Munster having won and lost semi-finals in Bordeaux and Toulouse in 2000 and 2003, before winning the 2008 final in Cardiff. That this is Toulouse’s first visit to Thomond Park is remarkable, albeit a quirk of fate mixed in with the two of them being among the top tier of seeds for the pool draw in recent years.
Whereas Munster have won the competition twice, Toulouse are out on their own with four European Cups. At their head is Guy Noves, as much a director of rugby as a hands-on head coach, but he is the boss, and akin to Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, celebrated his 1,000th match in charge last year.
He is now in his 21st successive season, and 23rd in all, as head coach, in a reign that will most probably never be emulated anywhere. He took over alongside Jean-Claude Skrela and Pierre Villepreux in 1989, with whom he helped to restore the club's esteemed academy/ education programme and to win the Top 14 that season but after the following season all three fell out with the club and left.
Noves returned for the 1993-94 season, and has been there ever since. In that time Toulouse have never failed to reach the Top semi-finals, reaching 11 finals winning nine.
Trevor Brennan joined in the 2002-03 season, following the chemical explosion at the nearby AZF plant a week after 9/11, causing the deaths of 31 people and damaging the club's home ground, the Stade Ernest Wallon. In part through earning four successive home quarter-finals in the Heineken Cup, the club rebuilt the ground and built the best facilities of any club in Europe.
“When I went there it was probably only about 10,000 capacity and now it’s a 19,000 capacity stadium,” says Brennan, not to mention a training pitch exclusively for the first and espoir squads, another pitch and a floodlit all-weather pitch, state of the art gym and player rooms, offices, educational facilities for their underage teams (from under-eight up) and a Michelin star restaurant and on-site boutique shop as well as one in the city.
"Now every game is a sell-out and some are moved to le stadium (capacity 33,000), and there is a section of the ground given over to the kids at every home game. I think they've something like 12,000 abonnés season ticket holders, and then there are 7,000 tickets left to whip up for Joe Public."
Their annual budget is €33 million, with at least €10 million going toward player salaries. The Airbus Group are their main backers. Peugeot are another major partner, supplying a fleet of cars for the playing squad, and they are estimated to have 500 partners. Mirroring the club’s importance to the pink city (with its population of over one million) the local council are believed to grant them at least €2 million per annum.
Although Toulouse have felt compelled to emulate rivals backed by wealthy benefactors by also opting for experienced signings from abroad, the famed academy still provides a steady conveyor belt of talent.
Brennan, who has bought, redeveloped and opened a second bar in addition to De Danu in his home village of Castelginest called Brennan’s Bar and Restaurant, has had an insider’s view of the Toulouse academy through the progress of his son Danny, who at 15 is now in the Toulouse academy.
He placed Danny initially in their local club Aucamville Lalande to give him a sense of place and roots in the game but within a year Toulouse has spotted him and he has been “boarding” at the club as part of the Toulouse academy and under-age structure. A regular for their under-16s, this season Brennan junior has also played for their under-18 and under-19 sides, and his dad reckons he’s saved about €300 a week in his weekly food bills since Danny began boarding in Toulouse.
"He's 6'4" and 19 stone. He can play tighthead, loosehead and secondrow. So prop is where they have him at the moment. He's a carbon copy of John Hayes, maybe a half a stone lighter than John." Brennan junior is one of three Toulouse to be picked for the French Under-16 development squad to play a tournament in England this summer against Wales, Scotland and England.
Coming up on the rails is 12-year-old Josh Brennan, who is in his second year with the club and plays for the Toulouse under-13s, and Bobby Valentine, who plays for the under-8s. "I'd say Josh could be very good. He has my temperament," says his dad, chuckling. "He's six foot two, he's 15 stone and he takes a size 14 shoe."
The Brennans are applying for a French carte d'identité to achieve dual nationality, and Danny wants to play for France one day. "He's been here since he was three years old. I'd love to see him play for Ireland but they've lived here all their lives, and it would be turning your back on your country and your club. They're the ones who taught him all his rugby, given him all his opportunities, they put him into the academy, they paid for his schooling."
Aidan McCullen, now head of digital for the Communicorp Group, another former Leinster and Ireland backrower cum lock, played one season with Toulouse in 2005-06 before a knee injury led to him seeing out his career with London Irish.
“The only regret I have is that I didn’t have that experience earlier and then come back to Leinster, because of the understanding I got of the game, and it wasn’t coached into me, by playing the way they play. I learned how to play and create space. I had little bits of them but it joined the dots up. It was like playing a game on Playstation.”
Also a pundit for Setanta’s coverage of the Top 14, McCullen says: “It always bugs me about rugby nowadays that it’s very patterned all the time instead of playing to what the space is, and that for me is one of the great tragedies of professionalism. It’s mad, because of all the foreigners, that kind of French flair and just space creation, is going out of the game. Dricco does is still, D’Arce does it too, but there’s only a few though that can still have that understanding of how to do it.”
McCullen talks of the Toulouse culture that emanates from the grassroots up. “They don’t communicate it or verbalise what that is. You have to be part of it to understand it.
"They say stay on your feet, so players who . . . stay upright, that's how it translates, ' restez debout ' is like 'stay up'. The way we were kind of trained to carry in Ireland was to run at space, set up a ruck, next guy come on. So one day, it was my first home game against Narbonne, I ran into the space, in between two players and when they both stepped in to tackle me I turned my back and offloaded to the guy who was behind me. In the video session, that was the first time Guy Noves said 'Bravo!' and he was jumping around. That was my Eureka moment."
'Spirit of the club'
McCullen started the next eight games in a row and video sessions are, according to McCullen, when Noves comes into his own. "I think he's like the spirit of the club. He doesn't coach as such but he'll pick one thing that will strike a chord and as a result a load of events will fall perfectly into place."
He describes a similar moment when Noves spoke to Cedric Heymans. "The Eureka moment for Cedric was when Guy said to him ' se brillez des autres ', which means 'make the others shine'. That's when Heymans' career took off."
"I think the game has changed. His [Noves'] role is still valid but it needs enhancement. The year I left they brought in a defence coach and I could see that straight away, that added a huge amount and Yannick Bru started to coach the year I left . . . "
Even so, this season there have also been signs that the magic has starred to fade, be it Noves' touch or the club itself. "They've only won one away game, against Biarritz, in the Top 14 this season," notes Brennan, "and Barnhall would beat Biarritz. But in saying that, they seem to be hitting a bit of form," he adds in reference to a 22-point comeback for a draw at Stade Francais two weeks ago and a bonus point defeat against Toulon in Marseilles last Sunday. They've also had an horrendous injury list including key men like Thierry Dusautoir and Luke McAlister.
The way McCullen sees it, the retirement of Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde, their goalkicking genius of a scrumhalf cum occasional outhalf, has left a void which has never been filled.
“I think scrumhalf is the big weakness for them. I don’t think [Jean-Marc] Doussain is a nine, I think he’s a nine and a half. You look at the speed of ball . . . he takes a step every time. . . he tries to step into the space and pulls it back but any good defender will see that and absolutely nail the ball carrier.
“Elissalde, as a player, he was the brains of the team. He had a crystal ball when he played . . . I think his retirement was a massive, massive loss for Toulouse because they lost that strategist and I don’t think they replaced him.”
As for today, McCullen says: “They are capable of it [winning], but I don’t think they will. I just don’t see it, in their form.”
There’s been a huge media build-up to this game, and having lunched with the coaching staff on Wednesday at the club, Brennan says that Toulouse are “up for it”, adding: “They’re just one of those teams that lift themselves for the big games and they just love the European Cup. If there was a case where they didn’t qualify for the top six, they realise now that they’ve got to go and win this European Cup. That’s in the back of their heads too. There are a lot of people under pressure now, coaches, and players, to perform.”