All things — good and bad — come to an end. So it was, on the first Saturday in April, six days after they had defeated Racing 92 in the Champions Cup quarter-final, by a single point and with 14 players, Toulouse’s record-breaking unbeaten domestic run finally hit the rocks, against Toulon.
They had, admittedly, rested several players — including Jerome Kaino, Sofiane Guitoune, Richie Gray, Yoann Huget, and Charlie Faumuina — following the heroics of their European success. But they looked leg-weary, brain-numb and off-the-pace.
And, under rain-heavy clouds in Marseille, they were comprehensively beaten. The final score, 25-10, was kind to them. Toulouse failed to score a point between the 11th-minute penalty and the 78th-minute converted try, when the game was already long out of their reach.
At least in scoring that late touchdown, replacement scrum-half, Pierre Pagès, ensured they maintained one record — of scoring a try in every game this season.
It had been almost too easy for French rugby fans to get carried away with the rouge-et-noir’s 14-match unbeaten run in the Top 14. Off the back of a typically Toulousain monster pack, they have, basically, cried havoc and wreaked more of it all season. They have revelled in unstructured, free-flowing, almost anarchic rugby, a product of new coach, Clement Poitrenaud’s stint in Super Rugby.
When the mood has taken them, they have been unplayable. Between a surprise home turnover against near-rivals Castres Olympique — with five wins in their last six meetings — on September 29, 2018, and that loss to Toulon in Marseille on April 6, 2019, Toulouse had racked up 14 French championship games without defeat. That run included 13 wins, home and away, in a competition historically not noted for its on-the-road victories.
In the same period, they also won six of seven Champions Cup outings. Their sole defeat in six months of rugby, before the Toulon comedown, was against Leinster, in Dublin, in January. On that day, at the RDS, that new Toulouse style, which is based on more than a hint of remembrances of nineties and noughties glory days, was effectively kettled by Leinster organisation and patience, and successfully seen off by Irish incisiveness.
Toulouse’s record for the season now stands at a not-to-be-sniffed-at 25 wins from 30 outings. They are in a Champions Cup semi-final and head the Top 14 by some margin. More recently — as both semi-finalists stare down the barrels of domestic and European run-ins — the French side have a slightly better record. They have won one of their two Top 14 games — an epic, 47-44 victory over second-placed Clermont — since the Champions Cup win over Racing.
Leinster have a draw and a defeat in two PRO14 home games, following their quarter-final win over Ulster.
But Leo Cullen’s side has not lost at home in Europe since December 2015, and Toulouse coach, Ugo Mola, is keen to paint the hosts as hot favourites.
“Toulouse, honestly, have not much to lose this weekend, but a lot to learn,” he reasoned. “Leinster have the ability to raise their standards against high-quality opponents. I sometimes get the impression that we don’t realise the level of the team we will face...”
Focus is the key. And so is not dwelling on the past. Toulouse had enjoyed a long unbeaten run. Now, they are one from two.
Staff and players were determined not to dwell on the Toulon defeat, beyond the Tuesday briefing.
“It was our weakest game for at least five months,” forwards’ coach, William Servat, said.
“We came up with nothing. We were off-the-pace. It’s never easy to set things up for the next Saturday, after such a hard-fought and late game, but we have a strong, mature and consistent squad.”
That maturity was proved in the responses of two of the new crop of Toulouse players. France fly-half Romain Ntamack, 19, who had been comprehensively outplayed at 10 by his opposite number, Louis Carbonel: “We cannot risk easing-up. We don’t have time to look at what has been done; we just have time to look at the upcoming game. We have to be ready to go again.”