Col­lazo has a mas­sive task to re­verse the for­tunes of fallen giants Toulon

Head coach has to cre­ate new era without big names Worst start in 10 years for for­mer kings of Europe

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - By Ben Coles

All dy­nas­ties even­tu­ally come to an end, but Toulon’s demise has been as­ton­ish­ing, as they have faded into Eu­ro­pean and now do­mes­tic ob­scu­rity. The first side to win three suc­ces­sive Eu­ro­pean ti­tles are now lan­guish­ing in 12th place in the Top 14.

To­day, they wel­come Newcastle Fal­cons to the Stade Mayol, hav­ing won only two of their first seven league matches, their worst start to a sea­son since they were pro­moted in 2008.

Toulon are now on their fifth head coach since lift­ing their last tro­phy in 2015, the Cham­pi­ons Cup, when they beat Cler­mont – Diego Dominguez, Mike Ford, Richard Cock­er­ill and Fa­bien Galthie all get­ting a turn in the hot seat since Bernard La­porte’s hugely suc­cess­ful reign came to an end.

The team who built a rep­u­ta­tion for ac­quir­ing megas­tars no longer shop ex­clu­sively in the 60-Test cap mar­ket. Three years on from that vic­to­ri­ous day at Twick­en­ham, only four play­ers from the match-day 23 re­main at the club.

The drop-off is a steep one: from Leigh Half­penny to Daniel Ikpe­fan at full-back. Or from Juan Smith and St­ef­fon Ar­mitage to cur­rent flankers Jean Mon­ri­bot and Stephane Onam­bele. From Bakkies Botha to Swan Reb­badj.

Repack­ag­ing that con­trast into some fig­ures, Toulon’s num­ber of Test caps has dropped from 916 in that 2014-2015 cam­paign to now well un­der 400. Guil­hem Guirado, France’s cap­tain, ac­counts for 60 of those – and he leaves at the end of the sea­son for Mont­pel­lier.

Mourad Boud­jel­lal may have be­come fa­mous for open­ing his cheque­book to sign top stars, but he is no longer the rich­est owner in the Top 14, not even in the top three; he is a mil­lion­aire bat­tling against three bil­lion­aires – Mont­pel­lier’s Mo­hed Al­trad, Stade Fran­cais owner Hans-Peter Wild and Rac­ing 92’s Jacky Loren­zetti.

Not that money is ev­ery­thing. Cas­tres stunned the league with a run to the ti­tle last sea­son, start­ing by sneak­ing into the Top 14 play-offs in sixth place. They then won twice on the road, at Toulouse and Rac­ing 92, be­fore suf­fo­cat­ing Mont­pel­lier in the fi­nal.

Cas­tres had the 11th big­gest bud­get in the Top 14 – the sides with the 12th and 13th largest were rel­e­gated – but what they lacked fi­nan­cially they made up for in abun­dance through their ca­ma­raderie, a clear ethos bought into by ev­ery player led by head coach Christophe Urios, and, cru­cially, an in­trin­sic be­lief that re­gard­less of what ev­ery­body out­side of the club and the city said, Cas­tres could win it all.

The cur­rent em­bod­i­ment of Toulon lack all those qual­i­ties, hardly a sur­prise given the turnover rate in both their per­son­nel and coach­ing depart­ment over the past few years. Cock­er­ill pulled off a mi­nor mir­a­cle in 2017 by get­ting them to the Top 14 fi­nal.

Af­ter strik­ing out with big-name hires – the ex­tremely in­ex­pe­ri­enced Dominguez, then the man Boud­jel­lal chased for years, Galthie – hir­ing Pa­trice Col­lazo was meant to trans­form Toulon’s im­age from a club built on mer­ce­nar­ies to one who suc­ceed by de­vel­op­ing young French tal­ent.

Col­lazo’s work with La Rochelle proved he could de­liver on that type of project, hav­ing taken them from off the map to first place in the Top 14 and into the Cham­pi­ons Cup around a core of ex­cit­ing French tal­ent – Gabriel Lacroix, Kevin Gour­don, Vin­cent Rat­tez, Arthur Retiere and Pierre Bour­garit.

Lost be­tween build­ing that new era un­der Col­lazo and the glo­ries of yes­ter­year, Toulon no longer re­sem­ble se­ri­ous con­tenders. Boud­jel­lal is hardly known for his pa­tience and in the past might have al­ready thrown his coach un­der the bus by now.

How­ever, speak­ing to L’Equipe this week, he in­sisted his pri­or­ity was to give Col­lazo bet­ter play­ers, a wel­come sign of some faith in his coach’s meth­ods de­spite Toulon’s win rate this sea­son be­ing be­low 30 per cent. “Do not bury us too fast on the re­cruit­ment. Wait a bit,” he said. “The boss is back.”

Boud­jel­lal hardly scraped the bot­tom of the bar­rel by sign­ing Rhys Webb, side­lined by in­jury this week­end, and All Blacks winger Ju­lian Savea. Ex­cept that Savea, with 46 tries in 54 Tests, has yet to score for Toulon, es­sen­tially the op­po­site of Chris Ash­ton’s record-break­ing im­pact on the Cote d’Azur last sea­son. In­deed, Savea’s name made head­lines only af­ter his wife, Fa­tima, lashed out on Twit­ter at his new Toulon team-mates and the state of the Top 14.

There are bet­ter ways to en­dear your­self to a new club and coun­try than post­ing, “I swear this team doesn’t know how to pass” and, “Rugby on this side of the world is very be­hind. I feel Ju­lian’s pain out there on the field”.

Savea’s mes­sage could be ap­plied to Toulon as a whole. Their shirt has three stars above the crest in recog­ni­tion of their Eu­ro­pean glo­ries, ex­cept now Toulon re­sem­ble a com­pletely dif­fer­ent op­er­a­tion, striv­ing to build a new iden­tity un­der Col­lazo.

“It will come when it will come,” said a philo­soph­i­cal Savea. “[Scor­ing that first try] is im­por­tant to oth­ers, not re­ally for me. The main thing is the team and our col­lec­tive ben­e­fit. I feel good here, even if I have to adapt to the game. I think it will get bet­ter soon.”

‘Do not bury us too fast. Wait a bit. The boss is back’

Glory days: Toulon play­ers cel­e­brate at Twick­en­ham in 2015 af­ter win­ning their third Eu­ro­pean ti­tle in a row, but the club have fallen from grace since and are now 12th in the Top 14

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