French rugby soul-searches be­fore New­cas­tle’s visit to Toulon

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Paul Rees

New­cas­tle’s last ap­pear­ance in the Euro­pean Cup was against Stade Français in Paris in the 2005 quar­ter­fi­nal and it is to France they travel on their reap­pear­ance this Sun­day. At the start of the sea­son, a trip to Toulon might not have pre­saged the hap­pi­est of re­turns; the club that won the tour­na­ment for three suc­ces­sive sea­sons ear­lier this decade only avoided drop­ping into the Top 14’s rel­e­ga­tion zone last week­end be­cause of a su­pe­rior points dif­fer­ence over Agen.

French clubs have tended to put Europe sec­ond if fight­ing on two fronts un­der­mines their cam­paign in the Top 14, still the holy grail for most in a coun­try that has had a league sys­tem for al­most as long as it has had rugby. Cas­tres are a no­table ex­am­ple, op­er­at­ing on a much lower bud­get than most of their ri­vals: they tend to exit Europe early but have won the league twice in the last six sea­sons.

The Fal­cons are hardly in the finest of fet­tle, prop­ping up the Premier­ship five months af­ter reach­ing the play-offs for the first time, but fresh pas­tures may prove rein­vig­o­rat­ing. Toulon’s ap­petite for Europe is more ques­tion­able. François Trin­hDuc, their France out­side-half, said: “We go into the Cham­pi­ons Cup with the taste of the Top 14 in our mouths.”

Toulon’s fall has not been as spec­tac­u­lar as their rise, when they quickly went from the sec­ond di­vi­sion to Euro­pean and Top 14 ti­tles, and it may turn out to be a blip, but their colour­ful owner Mourad Boud­jel­lal’s use of his cheque­book, so re­ward­ing in the past, of­fers less suc­cour now be­cause of the man who en­joyed suc­cess as the club’s head coach in the mid­dle of the decade, Bernard La­porte.

La­porte now heads the French Rugby Fed­er­a­tion and has cracked down on the ex­ces­sive num­ber of over­seas play­ers in the Top 14. Boud­jel­lal spoke two weeks ago of need­ing to sign five play­ers, ac­knowl­edg­ing that three had to be qual­i­fied to play for France. Not that many of his ac­qui­si­tions in re­cent sea­sons have matched re­cruits like Jonny Wilkin­son and Juan Martín Fernán­dez Lobbe, with former All Blacks like Ma’a Nonu and Ju­lian Savea strug­gling in a tac­ti­cally un­fa­mil­iar en­vi­ron­ment.

Boud­jel­lal is on his fifth head coach in three years since La­porte’s de­par­ture and has vowed to stick with the cur­rent in­cum­bent Pa­trice Col­lazo even if it means a re­turn to the sec­ond di­vi­sion. Yet, cu­ri­ously for some­one who in­vested in suc­cess, he be­lieves that money is the curse of the French club game. “The clubs that have a pas­sion for the game and a rugby cul­ture are suf­fer­ing,” he said. “They are be­ing over­whelmed by clubs with bil­lion­aires and empty sta­di­ums. I agree with [World Rugby’s vice-chair­man] Agustín Pi­chot when he says that rugby is in dan­ger. It is clear that it is.”

Toulon’s match with New­cas­tle wraps up the open­ing round of the Cham­pi­ons Cup: there are, mer­ci­fully, no Sun­day evening kick-offs now that there is just one Bri­tish broad­caster. For all the am­biva­lence the French at times ap­pear to have had for Europe, they have sup­plied nine fi­nal­ists over the years to Eng­land’s five, Ire­land’s three and Wales’s one.

There have been five all-French fi­nals com­pared to one all-English and one all-Ir­ish and the last year a Top 14 club did not ap­pear on the fi­nal day was in 2012 when Le­in­ster de­feated Ul­ster. The tour­na­ment has been ther­a­peu­tic for clubs in a league in which away vic­to­ries used to be scarce for cul­tural rea­sons, not least that home teams were ex­pected to win and ref­er­ees knew it.

Of the six French clubs in the Cham­pi­ons Cup this sea­son, only Toulon have a poor away record with four de­feats out of four. Four of the other five have 50% re­turns while Rac­ing 92, last sea­son’s beaten fi­nal­ists, have won two of their three matches on the road. As Cler­mont Au­vergne, the Top 14 lead­ers who are in the Chal­lenge Cup this sea­son, showed last sea­son at Sara­cens, the French have found a cure for travel sick­ness.

The glob­al­i­sa­tion of the club game in France has also been a fac­tor as the rugby world be­comes smaller. Mont­pel­lier’s first game is at home to Ed­in­burgh: their head coach Vern Cot­ter ar­rived from Scot­land, and his op­po­site num­ber, Richard Cock­er­ill, had a stint with Toulon, who are in the same group, af­ter be­ing sacked by Le­ices­ter.

Cot­ter said: “The Cham­pi­ons Cup is an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion with leg­endary teams in each pool, clubs who have writ­ten them­selves in the his­tory of the tour­na­ment.

“The rules are dif­fer­ent from the Top 14: there is more play­ing time and the game is quicker. It de­mands more from play­ers and you want to be able to play against the very best in Europe. We were in a dif­fi­cult pool last sea­son and only man­aged two wins. This year we are de­ter­mined to do all that it takes to qual­ify for the quar­ter-fi­nals.”

Toulouse re­turn af­ter a year in the Chal­lenge Cup. Their record of win­ning four fi­nals was last sea­son matched by Le­in­ster and it is 2010 since their last tri­umph. They have wob­bled in re­cent weeks in the Top 14 af­ter a strong start and their match on Satur­day at Bath pairs two of the first three win­ners in the 1990s, an echo in a tour­na­ment that con­tin­ues to pro­vide fresh voices.

• This is an ex­tract from our weekly rugby union email, the Break­down. To sub­scribe just visit this page and fol­low the in­struc­tions.

Toulon, in red, face New­cas­tle on Sun­day with ‘the taste of the Top 14 in our mouths’. Pho­to­graph: Pas­cal Guyot/AFP/Getty Im­ages

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