Toulouse still set the gold standards

Irish attitudes towards French opposition in Europe have changed markedly, but a healthy respect remains for Guy Noves’ Toulouse, writes Ronan O'Gara.

Toulouse still set the gold standards

BACK in the day, we would sit under the old stand at Thomond Park in pre-season and map out our goals. Some were silly and stupid. “Win every game”, someone would offer. “Don’t lose at home” was a regular.

But “win in France” had a status as a team goal for Munster that was as much cherished as it seemed to be elusive.

Many argue that Bordeaux in 2000, the Heineken Cup semi-final win over Toulouse, was our rubicon moment. It’s a simplistic assessment in many ways.

The currency in the victory that day was its status — a European semi-final. It was all as new as paint to us, so the excitement was more innocence than the ruthlessness of the professional environment we now exist in.

Irish attitudes towards French opposition have changed, but if I was still playing, I would still find it daunting going to Clermont, Toulouse or Toulon.

But only those three, and not because they’re French, but because they’re still European benchmarks — Toulouse and Clermont at least. Toulon has a sense of nouveau riche about them still.

What fascinates me about Toulouse is their ability over the years — now understanding the demands on the players with the Bouclier — to compete on both domestic and European fronts so consistently. They’re still the most successful rugby team in Europe and that is less down to chequebook management than it is to the extraordinary longevity of Guy Noves and Toulouse’s front office structure.

Noves has been there as a player and coach for nearly 40 years, coaching the side since 1993. Ordinarily, you would expect debates about whether a coach needs to be moved on in order to freshen things up, but he has never even been threatened with the push. He’s either a very astute politician or very good at what he does, especially working with people. Noves oversees recruitment, and they rarely make mistakes. That’s not coincidence.

I had a front row seat of how they operate seven years ago sitting down for coffee in Auckland with Luke McAlister. Alan Quinlan and I met with the All Black and Rua Tipoki to try to swing him for Munster. We did not have the budget of some of his other suitors but we made a pretty convincing case. With good reason. Notwithstanding his ability to play at ten or twelve, we felt he would be a huge long-term benefit to Munster rugby in the values he espoused. As it turned out we secured Tipoki who turned out to be a fantastic person and signing for Munster, and Sale nipped in and got McAlister.

But Toulouse were always there, beavering away in the background. After he returned to New Zealand following two seasons in Manchester, Toulouse made their move. He remains there. Depending on who you listen to this week, he may miss tomorrow’s visit to Thomond Park, a pilgrimage I thought he’d be making before now! Toulouse have that reputation as a good club who look after their own. Trevor Brennan had a few downs there, but they really looked after him and now he’s immersed in Toulouse life. It’s his home. Byron Kelleher also had his issues off the pitch but Toulouse warmed to him and he gave them a massive return. It’s a club with solid foundations and admirable values.

Which is why there is huge respect in Munster for their Heineken Cup quarter-final opponents. But we meet them on vastly different terms to Bordeaux 14 years ago. Munster is now a unit with European heritage behind them even if nearly all of us who began it have moved on. However, the importance of understanding the journey you’ve been on is critical, hence my appreciation for Axel Foley’s continuing role in the coaching booth.

The only player still standing is Donncha O’Callaghan. I don’t have information on whether he starts alongside Paul O’Connell tomorrow, or whether he is on the replacements, but if he’s not, it must be the first time — barring injury — that he’s been missing since the turn of the century! It’s not a straightforward decision for the Munster management, no more than who partners Casey Laulala in the centre.

Because he’s not flash, Donncha’s work sometimes gets overlooked outside the group, but you need a toiler, someone who’ll sacrifice himself for 80 minutes on the pitch. That’s his bread and butter. He’s fitter than anyone, always has been, and if he wouldn’t have the handling or carrying skills of Paul, in terms of mauls and cleanouts, he is a blue-collar grafter to the core — and that’s where the game is at nowadays in terms of possession.

Putting on the red jersey has always made Donners tick. He’s seen the evolution of it from the early days and he still has a huge level of pride in representing the people of Cork. He was always the most professional in the squad, utterly thorough in terms of his physical and dietary preparation, his video work and his match focus.

He’s a teetotaller so ironically his worst time of the season is when structure goes out the window — as in May, when Munster’s season would finish. The staff and players would perhaps go off on a bender for two days, recover for two more. It would throw Donners completely out of kilter, he wouldn’t know where he was for four days. He just has such a constant equilibrium, his system is very structured. Drink doesn’t feature in his life, so if you saw him running around the roads of Bishopstown with a hat on him at eleven o’clock at night, you can rest assured the rest of us were off giving it a lash somewhere.

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