Waking the giant: Rugby World assesses Toulouse
They're the most successful team in European history, but Toulouse are due a return to the top table. RW heads to France to find out how... This feature first appeared in the November 2016 edition of the magazine.
ON THIS late afternoon the wind is only moving the hot air around the back pitches of the Stade Ernest-Wallon. After a tough run in the Top 14 schedule it’s not a time for grimacing, shouting at each other or down-and-ups. They say a Toulousain’s five minutes really adds up to 20. As some picnicking fans doze in the shade, drawling in the local manner as they nasally accent the –ain at the end of their words, lying in quiet reverence as their heroes warm up for their open training session, it is clear this is the somnambulant pace of life in Toulouse.
Out of nowhere creeps president Jean-René Bouscatel. We hear “Papa!” as head coach Ugo Mola catches a kick from his young son, who then scampers off round the back of the complex. On the adjacent pitch schoolboys work on their skills, almost to a tot wearing Toulousain red and black. On the main patch, Jean-Baptiste Élissalde orchestrates a run-through of exit strategies without bursting the boys. Gillian Galan runs it up. There’s another kick. The whistle is blown. It all starts over again while a stern William Servat prowls around.
As new hero Richie Gray explains in the car park afterwards – the mastodon of a lock is suited and booted and on his way to a “players and partners do” with some prominent locals – Toulouse is a famous club with its own way of doing things. He loves the local lifestyle.
Yet in many other parts of the world a long history of winning means that any hiatus on success causes a stir amongst fans and a yearning for change. Toulouse have won four European titles and been kings of France a staggering 19 times. But the giants have not won the Bouclier de Brennus for four years and they haven’t won a European Cup since 2010. Ten domestic wins and every European triumph came under coach Guy Novès in a staggering 22-season reign. He left to become France head coach after the 2015 World Cup and since then the club has tightened its hug around ‘their own’; be it academy products or style.
Yet there is a sense from some that it’s time to shift on.
“I joined the club at 16,” explains Jean-Marc Doussain, one of a surprising number of four captains at the club. “There’s not been a huge change in culture or an evolution in the club, but there’s been a drip-feeding of players. The big change is that Guy left, so we’ve had around two years of not having him. It’s about us re-evaluating. But every year two or three come in – it’s about them coming into our culture.”
Toby Flood is sitting with him at the café table and picks up the thread. “I think there’s more onus on the individuals,” says the English fly-half. “Mola came in and made a few changes and is slowly evaluating where the club is and how he sees us going forward, but as players we have a responsibility to carry that weight as well.
“At times it’s very easy as a player to let things pass you by, stand there and watch, and we need to really grab the reins and drive it. It’s important for players like Jean-Marc, and other guys who’ve been at the club for a long time, to take control of that. Because people like him, Galan – okay, we lost guys like Clément Poitrenaud and Vincent Clerc, stalwarts in the culture – but these guys need to be real drivers of what we do now.”
There have been no sweeping changes in culture with Guy gone, but Novès spent a lot more time off the field. Mola is hands on and if everyone is to progress, we are informed, then a healthy discussion between players and coaches must continue, rather than orders being passed down. As Flood puts it, cutely: “It’s a board meeting but with one guy making the final decision.”
The pair laugh across espresso cups when the political issue of several captains comes up. C’est compliqué. Flood expertly changes tack: “If you look at the progression of my career, when I went to Leicester from Newcastle there were maybe 20,000 captains and they really cared. That was a real eye-opener for me as Leicester were the biggest thing in town at the time – Leicester City have changed that in recent times – but it was a huge shock.
“Here it’s even bigger. With the history of the club and what they’ve achieved, the people really feel ‘Stade Toulousain’. When things are going well, people are much happier. Every day is like this,” – he gestures around the sun-bleached square with Doussain nodding in silent agreement – “everyone eats outside, you see a lot of people and spend a lot of time integrating with them. You can really feel it when we win. This place is ram-packed with people, they all line up when they bring a trophy, 30-40,000 people in the Capitole, I’ve seen pictures. It’s a real thing.
“It took me five months to get used to, not to let the shackles off as such but to grow up here and learn what they’re about. They talk about how they love to bring their own academy players through because they know how they play and operate. Of course they’ll bring in a few foreigners to augment what they do, with bits and pieces, but they’d really prefer those academy guys.”
Many locals have explained that already on this trip. That must add real pressure to any newcomer? “Massively,” Flood says before explaining again the differences between joining Tigers as a young man and joining Toulouse with 60-odd caps. But much like at training, Flood is relaxed and unencumbered by worry.
A check of the watch and the two players realise they may have to push back a backs meeting, but not to stress. Talk turns to Europe and a competition the club are famed for winning. The team do focus on Europe but in Novès’s time they were a bit better at stepping up a gear, emotionally and mentally, when continental fixtures came up. They have had a go in the league this season but losses to Racing, Toulon and Lyon don’t look too sharp. They remain positive.
Doussain says: “I always think to myself, ‘If we are level we can win.’ We just keep doing what we do week on week on week. Of course there will be big games and small games…”
“You have to ride the emotional tide,” Flood interjects. “If you just put it down on paper, the teams around Toulouse have gotten better.
“That’s the same in England. Look at the evolution of English rugby, with them competing with teams in France with much bigger budgets. They worked incredibly hard on the physical side of things because they realised that they needed fit, strong players. Then they realised they needed them on the pitch. So they put more into physiotherapy and how to keep the best 23 blokes on the field. And now their budgets are going up.
“So now not only do they have the ability to compete financially – look at Wasps in our pool, who have Kurtley Beale and Danny Cipriani back – but they have the infrastructure. If you’re good enough at keeping the injury level down, getting them back quicker, and now you’ve got the budget, there’s real scope for saying the English system is going pretty well at the moment. That every team is getting better. The bar is raised higher and higher.”
“It’s changed,” agrees Doussain. “The standard has gone up. Of course sometimes we haven’t played so well, so that has an impact. We were terrible in Ulster and Saracens (last season) and two seasons before that we lost to Connacht. The quality of other Top 14 teams has gone up and it’s the same in Europe. This has limited the chance of winning it all – there are no longer just three or four teams who can win in Europe.
“The most important thing for us is to turn up in Europe. We didn’t really exist last year, finishing fourth in our pool, and then beyond that we haven’t done well for two years. It’s the same in the Top 14, but looking at Europe the next step is to put our foot back down on the accelerator, say this is who we are, we are Stade Toulousain and we can still operate in Europe.”
Flood nods. “We’ll look at this pool and think we’ve got a real chance,” he says. “That isn’t to belittle any other team, because we have to get back and as Jean-Marc says we haven’t existed in Europe for a couple of years so we need to be playing those big teams in those big games and get to the quarters and semis. We need to be in the position to win and be ruthless. I think sometimes we miss that.”
There is a sense that a new Toulousain generation, supplemented by supportive foreigners, must do just that – push itself to emulate past glories by forging a new way ahead. The pace of life may be slower here but with the right shove, kick or even string of results, hope abounds that this giant will roar back to its very best.
This feature first appeared in the November 2016 edition of the magazine.