CASTRES, FRANCE – It is very easy to dislike Top 14 giants Toulon. Especially if you are a rugby fan and live in any part of Europe – or, indeed, the world – that is not the relatively small Var department on the south of France’s sun-soaked Cote d’Azur where the blue-collar port can be found.
It is easy to dislike the club’s recent record. This year’s European Rugby Champions Cup victory over Clermont at Twickenham gave Toulon their third top-tier European title in as many seasons – and puts them on firmly course for a second-in-a-row domestic and European double. They have appeared in five European finals in the past six seasons – losing in the Challenge Cup final in 2010 and 2012 – and three Top 14 finals in as many campaigns.
It is especially easy to dislike the way in which heart-on-his-sleeve club president Mourad Boudjellal has gone about building his Toulon Empire.
But – as easy as it is to dislike Toulon, is it actually right to do so? And are the naysayers’ arguments valid?
A not-unexpected outpouring of spite and bile followed the club’s 24-18 win at the headquarters of English rugby. Detractors – and Irish media and fans were again particularly vociferous – voiced their dismay at Toulon’s three-in-a-row.
It would be churlish and maybe a little inaccurate to suggest that most of the Irish complainants were mostly Leinster fans dismayed that their beloved Blues’ three Heineken Cup titles in four seasons had been bettered. After all, Toulon stars have had to live with scathing “mercenary” comments for as longer than a few days.
Meanwhile, bitter questions have been raised over whether bringing in so many overseas players for a “pension payday” is good for rugby in general, and French rugby in particular.
Homegrown talent? What homegrown talent?
Critics of the Top 14 side will, with gleeful malice, point to what they see as the marked absence of French players in the European Rugby Champions Cup final – when, in fact, Toulon named 10 French players in their matchday squad of 23.
Freddie Michalak and Virgile Bruni were on the bench, but did not make it on to the pitch – while the likes of Maxime Mermoz, Jocelino Suta and Eric Escande were among Toulon’s French contingent who were not even on the flight from Nice.
Looking ahead to next season, even though Quade Cooper, Ma’a Nonu and Samu Manoa are – so far at least – the headline recruits for Toulon, under the detractors’ radar they have also picked up French players Jonathan Pelissie, Thibault Lassalle, Julien Caminati and Mohamed Boughanmi.
Smells like team spirit
Toulon’s players are well paid for their services. Very well paid. But – if it hadn’t been cast aside before, which it should have been – the “mercenaries” tag that has dogged the side for so long was surely thrown way out of Twickenham and somewhere into the North Sea by the performances of Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha on Saturday.
Botha, for one, tackled everything in white that got within range of those treetrunks he calls arms, and formed with Williams arguably the greatest 80-minute boiler-room twin-performance club rugby has seen.
It was team-within-teamwork personified. It was experienced and intelligent – and filled beyond the brim with more passion than even Mourad Boudjellal’s money can buy.
The will, the desire, the need to win was not confined to Botha and Williams. Every single Toulon player was playing for one cause.
Yes, Toulon have bought in players, but so have every single other top flight club in Europe.
But they have also invested in something that simply cannot be bought, and it smells like team spirit. It is clear that the players love pulling on the rouge-et-noir shirt. These guys are not playing for the money. At best it is a secondary concern. They are playing for the pride and the passion and the glory of being the best. And they know that being the best means having to be the best.
The victory celebration of this host of stars, who between them boast more honours than the Harvard honours board, is a testament to the commitment they have to their club.
The rise of the Toulon Empire
The 2013 Top 14 final between Toulon and Castres was the first in the professional era of French rugby not to feature one or more of Toulouse, Clermont, Stade Francais or Biarritz. In fact, it was the first not to feature any of those four sides since 1993.
The following year, Toulon and Castres met again at Stade de France for a widely unexpected repeat run. And Toulon, finally, became the first side since Toulouse in 1996 to do the Top 14 / European double. Many believed that repeating Toulouse’s trick would be impossible – but now Toulon are on the verge of doing it for a second time.
That said, nobody can claim that the rise and rise of Boudjellal’s Toulon empire has been smooth. Their recent history has featured Challenge Cup final defeats and domestic play-off losses, Top 14 final defeats to Toulouse in 2012 and Castres in 2013 – two weeks after they had won their first Heineken Cup.
They have built to where they are now. They have made mistakes. They have learned. They have grown. And they are now three-time European champions.
Toulon’s critics present the club as the personal plaything of its bottomless yet strangely capricious moneypit president Mourad Boudjellal.
That he is eccentric is undoubted, but his love of his home town and his rugby club cannot be over-emphasised.
This is the man who spent much of Saturday’s European Cup final pacing nervously around Toulon’s Twickenham dressing room, unable to watch the unfolding game on the pitch. This is this usually effusive and talkative man whose voice was so thick with emotion that he could barely generate a coherent sentence when a French media microphone was shoved under his nose immediately after the match.
This is the man who said when took over at Toulon after they had been relegated to the ProD2 in 2006 that he wanted to return his club to their former glories. Who was prepared to put his hand deep into his own pockets to do so.
He doesn’t have to any more. He revealed back in 2013 that he no longer needed to bankroll the club – and Toulon were one of just two Top 14 sides to report a profit this season.
Whatever you think about his occasional habit of lobbing verbal grenades in the direction of players, rivals, rugby officialdom and the media, you cannot argue with the figures. It was reported in 2013 that Toulon’s turnover had risen 500% under his stewardship – and the club do not even come close to splashing the Top 14’s €10.5million salary cap on players.
Money, Money, Money
It is not as if Toulon are the richest club in Europe. That crown currently rests in the counting house of Toulouse – although English side Wasps are reportedly fast hunting down the ancien aristocrats of French rugby.
Toulon’s budget for this season was €25.37million – lower than both Clermont (€27.9million) and Toulouse (€35.02million), and a smidge more than both Racing Metro and Stade Francais.
The fact is Toulon have spent their money rather more wisely than anyone else. As a result, they are arguably the best rugby side Europe has seen in the past 20 years. And they have the silverware to prove it.
It’s not their fault if no one else likes it.
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