Toulouse are back but the aristocratic aura is gone

Despite their history, famous club no longer enjoy the inherent advantages of yore

Toulouse players celebrate the victory over Bath at the Recreation Ground last weekend. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Toulouse players celebrate the victory over Bath at the Recreation Ground last weekend. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Toulouse are back, literally if not figuratively.

Having won the Heineken Champions Cup a joint record four times and been ever-presents since the tournament’s inception, they were absent for the first time last season. It didn’t seem quite the same without them, even if they are still nothing like the same force of old.

They have also won the French Championship a record 19 times, effectively making them the most successful ‘club’ in the world. However, the last of those triumphs was in the 2011-12 season, when they beat Toulon 18-12 in a tryless final at the Stade de France. Hence, this current run of six seasons without a trophy is their most barren period since the mid-1980s.

When they won the last of their four Heineken Cups by beating Biarritz 21-19 in the 2010 final, also in Stade de France, and also without scoring a try, they had just beaten a Johnny Sexton-less Leinster at home in the semi-finals 26-16.

Leinster had won their first title the year before, but they have since caught up with Toulouse to have four stars embroidered on their crests and, perhaps, passed them out in other respects, namely in also maintaining a strong sense of local identity and a penchant for playing entertaining rugby. In this, Leinster are the new Toulouse.

Of the starting Leinster XV which kicked off the 52-3 win over Wasps last week, 11 were born in the province and a dozen came through the province’s academy – the exceptions being the Athlone-born Connacht product Robbie Henshaw, the Limerick-born Munster academy (and ex-Connacht) hooker Sean Cronin and New Zealand wing James Lowe.

Of their 23-man match-day squad, 17 were born in the province and 18 came through the Leinster academy.

No club, province or region in European top flight rugby is matching this, never mind achieving the same success as last season’s double winners. It’s ridiculous really.

When Toulouse were hoovering up French Championships and Heineken Cups, Toulouse were also generally bulk suppliers to Les Bleus. All told, 16 of their squad in the 2010 Heineken Cup final were French.

In latter years, the conveyor belt that produced players such as Freddy Michalak, Clement Poitrenaud, Maxime Medard and others, as did the talent identification system that plucked the likes of Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Yannick Jauzion, Vincent Clerc and co from smaller clubs like La Rochelle, Colomiers and Grenoble, dried up.

Increasingly, they relied on signings from other clubs and imports. Their rugby lost its way too, becoming lumbering, mind-numbingly, forward-orientated bash-bash stuff.

Prioritised fixtures

However, prompted by the ‘jiff’ system being enforced by the French Federation and Bernard Laporte, French clubs are obliged to have 14-French qualified players in their 23-man matchday squads on average over the course of the season (which will rise to 15 next season and 16 the year after).

Some, such as Montpellier, are bending this ruling by cramming their squads with French-qualified players occasionally for games to maintain the average, while playing fewer for prioritised fixtures. But Toulouse are buying into this more than most, and last week of their 16 French-qualified players in the matchday 23 for their win away to Bath, nine came through their academy.

Speaking in advance of tomorrow’s match-up last Thursday, the Stade Toulousain club president, former flanker Didier Lacroix, talked about the similarities and differences between his club and Leinster.

Lacroix maintained that it is much more difficult to throw young players into the Top 14 than was the case with Leinster in the Pro14, and described the Leinster team which plays in Europe as “a selection within a selection”, meaning that it is pre-ordained and can thus be fine-tuned for European competition.

Toulouse’s Maxime Médard and head coach Ugo Mola celebrate after the victory over Bath at the Recreation Ground. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Toulouse’s Maxime Médard and head coach Ugo Mola celebrate after the victory over Bath at the Recreation Ground. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

“They have the possibility to rest players such as Sexton, having only played two or three matches before the start of the European Cup,” said Lacroix, and Sexton started three games before last week’s win over Wasps.

By contrast, according to Lacroix, when Toulouse played a lot of young players all together away to Montpellier four weeks ago, they were thrashed 66-15.

“I look at Leinster with a little bit of envy,” he admitted “and with a mix of joy and fear. What we both share together is a strong culture and identity, and the will to transmit a history, or a past, from a former generation to the current generation. This is sometimes a burden for the young players but we need to have that link with the past, and I think that’s what makes Leinster and all the Irish provinces very strong.”

Of course, as history also shows us, nothing lasts forever and every club goes through its troughs. After a golden era in the 1920s, Toulouse won only one title, in 1947, until the mid-80s. Then, without simplifying their history too much, along came Pierre Villepreux and Jean-Claude Skrela.

At a time when forward-orientated rugby had become dominant in the French game, the rebirth of ‘Gallic flair’ can be traced to 1982 when Villepreux and Skrela, former Toulouse teammates, took over the coaching reins and, backed by club president Jean Fabre, set about revolutionising the club’s way of playing, with an emphasis on the players thinking on their feet during the game.

“Players should be constantly thinking on the field of play, not just programmed with a set-list of moves,” said Villepreux.

Guy Novès

Their methods brought titles in 1985, 1986 and 1989, and the club also returned to its sense of family, educating its academy players both on and off the pitch, as well as looking after its retired players through its contacts in business.

Guy Novès, was a winger on the team that won the Bouclier de Brennus in 1985 and 1986, before taking over as head coach in 1993, and in his celebrated 22-year tenure they won the French championship nine times and the Heineken Cup four times.

Significantly, Toulouse were ahead of the parochial French posse in taking to the European Cup, winning it in its inaugural season, 1995-1996, and again in 2003, 2005 and 2010. More than any French club, Toulouse made the H Cup work.

In truth though, their decline set in toward the end of the Novès era, albeit performances worsened under Ugo Mola. After finishing fifth and being eliminated in le barrage in 2015-16, the following season Toulouse finished 12th (missing out on the play-offs for the first time in over 40 years) before last season recovering to finish third, albeit leading to another defeat in le barrage at home to Castres.

That Stade Toulousain are trying to rediscover themselves is in part because their hand has been forced. Some websites and publications list their budget as €32m, and the third biggest in the Top 14. But this is misleading according to some French journalists, as it takes into account the entire turnover and operations of the club, which in addition to its senior team, espoirs and academy, also caters for other sports and its own restaurant.

The truth is Toulouse no longer have the financial muscle of nouveau riche clubs such as the Paris duo, Toulon, Montpellier, Clermont and co.

Failing to qualify for the Heineken Cup last season allowed Toulouse to use their debut Challenge Cup campaign to blood younger players and develop a more entertaining brand of rugby.

Their game is now primarily focused on attack. They rarely kick the ball back from deep, preferring instead to counter-attack, and as well as counter-attacking, as they showed in last week with their first two tries in the win away to Bath, transition quickly into attack from turnover ball. Nine of last week’s squad were aged 24 or under.

This was a case of necessity being the mother of invention, as the increasingly boring brand of rugby meant that crowds had also started to drift away from le stade des Sept-Deniers in large numbers. Once the best-supported team in France, now they are fifth with an average home crowd of 15,310, behind Bordeaux/Begles (22,034), Toulon (17,764), Clermont (17.085) and La Rochelle (15,992).

Joint head coach

In another interesting off-field development, Régis Sonnes has come aboard as the de facto joint head coach – as described by Lacroix – at Mola’s request. With Toulouse, Sonnes won three Championships in 1994, 1995 and 1997. After the second of those successes, and on the brink of the French team, he took a year’s sabbatical to surf on the Pacific coast, from Los Angeles to southern Mexico.

After coaching Spain from 2010 to 2012, he coached Bordeaux (2012-16) and then pitched up in Cork, to coach the Bandon club and Bandon Grammar School, for the last two years before relocating to Toulouse. It will need time to assess his influence.

It’s doubtful Toulouse can ever again scale the heights previously conquered. The world has changed. With the increasing urbanisation of the French club game, and the emergence of multi-millionaire benefactors, Stade Toulousain no longer have the inherent advantages of yore.

Still, it’s good to have them back.

The Toulouse roll of honour

French Champions: 1912, 1922, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1927, 1947, 1985, 1986, 1989, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2008, 2011, 2012.

Heineken Cup champions: 1996, 2003, 2005, 2010

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