The Rugby Paper
Harmony at Toulouse is music to Kaino’s ears
Earlier this week, both Toulouse and Clermont head coaches insisted that their sides are underdogs for today’s Champions Cup quarter-final at Stade Marcel Michelin. Regardless of what happens this afternoon – Toulouse have not won at Clermont since 2002, but had not ever won at Munster before last weekend, when they became the second French side to leave Thomond Park with the spoils – it has already been a remarkable season for the four-time European champions and current Top 14 leaders.
Ugo Mola’s side have maintained a strong challenge on both fronts despite being deprived of their internationals for long periods.
The Six Nations alone deprived them of Antoine Dupont, Julien Marchand, Cyril Baille, Dorian Aldegheri, Peato Mauvaka, Francois Cros, Selevasio Tolofua, Thomas Ramos and Lucas Tauzin for periods of up to nine weeks. Romain Ntamack played one game in February after recovering from a broken jaw before being recalled to the squad.
In their extended absence, the club relied on rising stars like Matthis Lebel – who made the crucial break for Dupont’s first try in Limerick last weekend – and Dimitri Delibes, in just his third senior outing.
Double World Cup-winner Jerome Kaino – who will hang up his boots at the end of the season – has nothing but praise for the club’s young players who stepped in to fill the breach in the internationals’ absence.
Ahead of last weekend’s round-of16 match, in which he was both a rock and a hard place, he told me: “Our coaching staff predicted that we would be losing ten or 12 players to the international side – and we did throughout the whole campaign, so they prepped the younger guys to make sure they were comfortable with the squad and whenever they had a chance, they were ready – I was really impressed.
“We had a 19-year-old hooker who played a few games and played really well. It’s not just the starting 23 who carry the squad throughout the season, it’s the whole roster.”
Kaino is actually doing the club’s staff a slight disservice. Integrating the most promising academy players with the senior squad has been a cornerstone of daily training for at least three seasons.
Academy coaches AB Zondagh and Virgil Lacombe are also important coaching cogs with the senior squad. The youngsters and the pros share calls and moves and training methods as a matter of routine.
“There are no longer the Academy players on one side and the senior squad on the other, but a harmonious mix of players from different generations who share the same idea of rugby,” academy sporting director Michel Marfaing told L’Equipe recently. “As they have all gone to the training workshops, the kids are not surprised by a combination or a call when they join the professional squad. It saves time.”
Lacombe echoed the sentiment. “When we manage the academy players, we base our training on the volume, pace and intensity of sessions with the pros. When the guys go up to the first team, they are not surprised by what is asked of them.
“We test moves in Academy games before reproducing them in the pros and vice versa.
“If we sometimes fear the difference in level between the U23s and the Top 14 or the European Cup, we have absolutely no doubt about the ability of our young players to integrate into the pro team. As they know each other and train together, there is no problem.”
Delibes is a prime example. Coming on as a replacement against Munster, the 22-year-old did not look out of place or overawed in a highpace, high-intensity environment of a Champions Cup knockout match.
The centre by trade, who was playing on the wing after coming on as a 65th-minute replacement for Maxime Medard, was involved in both moves that led to tries for Dupont that killed the game as a competition. Hard to believe he had been involved in just two Top 14 matches before coming into last weekend’s squad.
Before Delibes, there was Lucas Tauzin and Lebel – the leading scorer in the Top 14 this season. Both were immediately comfortable when they made the step up.
And the hooker Kaino mentioned, Guillaume Cramont, who turned 20 in December, was impressively mature when covering for Marchand and Mauvaka in the Autumn Nations Cup period. Before them, there were Ntamack, Ramos and Mauvaka.
The number of academy players involved in senior training sessions according to the situation at the club. Right now, there’s a shortage of centre options – and while Pita Ahki and Zack Holmes start at 12 and 13 at Marcel Michelin later today, Delibes is on the bench ready to cover a range of backs positions.
As of next season, the Toulouse Academy will be able to count on Kaino’s experience full-time, as he plans to stay in south-west France rather than return to New Zealand.
“Coaching is the plan,” he said. “I’d love to be involved here with the espoirs (Academy). It’s a great life over here in Europe, a great experience for the kids and the family, and for me to also jump on the other side of the rugby team and learn something different – something more mentally tiring than physically.”
The Toulouse academy is already churning out hugely talented players, who are clearly ready for the Top 14 limelight. With Kaino’s input, who knows what they’ll be capable of...
“As of next season the Toulouse Academy can rely on Kaino’s experience full-time”