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
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