Veteran Noves plots a quiet revolution

PERCEPTIONS can really mess with the head sometimes.

Why is it that some teams are always labelled as “experienced” whilst others with the same age profile are “over the hill”?

The current Munster and Ireland teams may well be beginning a process of necessary rebuilding yet if you listened to some commentators, Munster have been “over the hill” since Paul O’Connell was in knee-high trousers.

Toulouse, on the other hand, still have an evergreen feel to them yet they too have begun regeneration. The core of the side which has enjoyed so much success at domestic and European level over the last few years have grown old together but it seems few people had noticed. Last season’s starting front row of Human, Servat and Johnson had a combined age of 33 while Vincent Clerc, Cedric Heymans and Yannick Jauzion, for so long the backbone of Toulouse’s backline, were all the wrong side of 30. All Black Byron Kelleher (34) and David Skrela (32) were the starting half-backs at the beginning of the season, although Kelleher subsequently lost his spot due to injury.

Yet Guy Noves has never been one to panic, and has over the last 12 months or so quietly spearheadeda (r)evolution that should see Toulouse stay at the top for another generation. Of the backs mentioned, only Clerc and Jauzion are still Toulouse players this season, Noves having ruthlessly offloaded players judged to be too long in the tooth and replaced them with a combination of young talent and overseas experience.

That hasn’t been an altogether straightforward task, as can be attested by the lack of academy players to come through the system recently. Only Maxime Médard and star-in-waiting Jean-Marc Doussain have really made the step up from the much vaunted Toulouse Espoirs in recent years, meaning that Noves has had to look further afield to strengthen the side this season. All Black Luke McAlister, Wallaby Luke Burgess, Stade Francais’s Lionel Beauxis and Springboks Gary Botha and Guthro Steenkamp have all joined the French champions, in a move that breaks a long held club tradition of only bringing in a foreigner if there’s no one else in France.

“There are several reasons for bringing in the players they’ve brought in,” says Valerie Pratdessus, journalist at Paris-based Rugby Magazine.

“Eyebrows were raised when they signed so many foreign players as Toulouse are normally the team with one of the highest numbers of French-born players. But obviously there was the World Cup to deal with, where they lost 14 players, so it was great to have a guy like Luke McAlister to come in with his experience.

“The other four will do the same thing; Luke Burgess comes in with loads of experience to compliment Jean-Marc Doussain. Botha is there as William Servat is 32 and can’t play every game. It’s the same with Steenkamp and Johnson.”

Of the club’s new recruits, it is McAlister who has proved to be the most far-sighted signing so far. Given the cold shoulder by New Zealand coach Graham Henry last season, the All Black has played nearly every game in the Top 14 so far, kicking goals and sparkling in a Toulouse backline littered with relative unknowns. Alongside the Kiwi, former Bourgoin powerhouse Yann David is another to have made a major impact. Signed as the long-term replacement for Jauzion, David missed most of last season with injury and is clearly making up for time spent out of the game. Add in Fijian speedster Timoci Matanavou and you get a radically different backline.

Elsewhere the new faces continue at No.8 where 20 year-old Gillian Galan is the standout performer in the pack. According to Pratdessus, Toulouse may have finally put together a squad capable to win both domestic and European titles in the same year — something Noves always claimed was impossible.

“They seem to have already found that balance of youth and experience, like Clermont, so you’d have to say that they look like they could get to the latter stages of both competitions.

“Last year the priority was probably the French Championship but maybe this year could be the first time Noves feels he has a squad to win both competitions. He’ll never say it but it’s possible.”

Time will tell.

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