They made their last stand as the fading emperors of Europe on Irish soil years ago only to endure a very public dethronement in front of 50,000 people, writes Peter Jackson
They made their last stand as the fading emperors of Europe on Irish soil years ago only to endure a very public dethronement in front of 50,000 people.
Almost 200 years after Napoleon’s undoing at Waterloo, Les Toulousains met theirs in Dublin on April 30, 2011, stripped naked of their threadbare old clothes and sent into an exile that has lasted longer than Bonaparte’s six years on St Helena.
As rugby nobility par excellence, Toulouse used to be the team to beat before everyone started doing it until they, too, ended up in the wilderness. Like Napoleon with his fleet of warships, club rugby’s pioneering glitterati discovered that 25 world, European and French titles counted for nothing once they had been holed amidships.
In the eight seasons since Leinster forced them into the most abject of abdications, Toulouse have fallen a long way, from the headline act to making up the numbers in the chorus line and they even failed to get that far last season finishing down among the also-rans in the Challenge Cup.
On the few occasions when they did manage to scrape into the last eight, Munster made them wish they hadn’t bothered, smashing them to the tune of 88 points in two no-contest quarter-finals at Thomond Park.
The neutrals remembered Thomas Castaignede, Emile N’Tamack, Yannick Jauzion and Vincent Clerc in their pomp and wept. There were times when the organisers would have felt like joining them, all too aware that Toulouse’s demise amounted to a crying shame for the tournament as a whole.
At a time when its collective capacity for springing a surprise has made the event a touch too predictable, the Champions’ Cup need the original winners almost as sorely as the fight game needed Muhammad Ali during his ban for dodging the draft to Vietnam.
It’s taken them a seriously long time but the wait for Toulouse’s reinvention is over. On a foul weekend, Toulouse delved deep into their tradition and came up with a classic, aided and abetted by like-minded opponents in Wasps.
Four straight wins, including the mighty scalp of Leinster, sends the most famous of French clubs into the Dublin return clutching a two-point lead over the holders.
Last time they were playing for a place in the final, this time for a home quarter-final.
Leo Cullen, Leinster’s captain in 2011, now their head coach, wasted no time after the predictable romp against Bath acknowledging the Toulouse revival. “They’ve got their old mojo back,’’ he said.
It will, of course, be a greater one for Toulouse on Saturday January 15, the first of two momentous Franco-Irish collisions on both sides of the border on the same afternoon. Leinster at the RDS followed by Ulster- Racing in Belfast will have a shuddering impact on who goes where in the last eight.
Eight different clubs have gone into the knockout stage as No. 1 seeds over the last eight season: in chronological order, Leinster, Clermont, Saracens, Racing, Ulster, Harlequins, Munster, and Northampton.
Only two, Leinster last season and Sarries in 2016, have been there at the end to take the trophy home.
With two of the six rounds still to go, England’s probable sole qualifier heads the pecking order above Racing by the narrowest possible points-difference: 67 to 66. Toulouse, are third with Edinburgh on course for only their second home quarter-final of all-time.
Three other PRO14 teams can be found this morning occupying the remaining last eight positions as the best pool runners-up: Leinster (15), Glasgow Warriors and Ulster each with one point fewer. The holders will be expected to stay in Dublin for the quarter-finals by settling their score with Toulouse at home in Round 5 and finishing Wasps off at Coventry in Round 6.
Four other clubs are still in with a shout, three of them swimming in the same pool as Munster – Castres, Exeter and Gloucester, next up for Munster at Kingsholm and still alive, if only just, despite Friday night’s demoralising home loss to their West Country neighbours.
Munster will be entitled to ask why an allegation of gouging wasn’t looked at during the defeat to Castres yesterday.
Referee Wayne Barnes, whose polished bilingual style sets a shining example for other English-speakers in charge of ties involving French teams, referred the matter to the Commissioner and the match continued.
Retrospective justice is better than none but it’s best done on the spot, at the scene of the alleged crime.
Munster had until 7.30pm last night to refer such incidents to match citing commissioner Chris Catling of England, who then has a further 24 hours to decide whether to cite a player.
Saracens have been called many things over the course of their metamorphosis from a London parks club to European superpower, not all complimentary. The arch-professionals have never lost any sleep over those envious of their winning habit but nobody had ever accused them of being ‘too nice’, least of all against Welsh opposition.
The put-down came from one of their own, Owen Farrell, after the English champions came from behind to beat Cardiff at the Arms Park. ‘’It’s not what we’re about,’’ the hard-nosed England captain said. “First half we were too nice. In terms of how we pride ourselves in what we do, the first half wasn’t good enough.”
When it comes to setting demanding standards, Farrell operates in the same unforgiving league as Sarries’ Irish director of rugby, Mark McCall. Seven tries and 50 points in the home leg the previous weekend prompted the Ulsterman to express his dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms. Despite presiding over a classic example of how to perform below par and keep winning, McCall declared himself ‘really pleased’. His team’s unbeaten run, 23 and counting since the Champions’ Cup beating by Leinster eight months ago, makes that sound an understatement, but then McCall’s an expert in the art.