After baptism of fire, Coughlan and Toulon are turning up the heat

A fraught start to life on the French south coast steeled former Munster man for turnaround in fortunes as Toulon hunt Challenge Cup silverware
After baptism of fire, Coughlan and Toulon are turning up the heat

Plenty on his plate: Toulon's coaching overhaul has seen James Coughlan wear many hats this term.

Munster’s interest in events in Marseille this weekend stretches beyond tomorrow’s showpiece Heineken Champions Cup final, when Leinster assistant coach Denis Leamy and La Rochelle boss Ronan O’Gara and his forwards coach Donnacha Ryan go up against one another. Tonight’s all-French showdown at Stade Velodrome will see James Coughlan play his part as Toulon meet Lyon in the Challenge Cup final.

Toulon’s presence in a European final represents quite a turnaround in fortunes for the former Galacticos whose season started with a depleted squad missing its Southern Hemisphere imports on Rugby Championship duty on top of a lengthy injury list including captain Charles Ollivon.

It made for a fraught introduction to life in the Mediterranean port city for Coughlan as Toulon found themselves in a relegation scrap at the bottom of the Top 14. The former Munster back-rower had been hired as a defence coach last summer and briefly found himself as a caretaker head coach when Patrice Collazo was fired in late October. When Franck Azema came in, Coughlan’s role was enhanced to include defence and forwards coaching, the Corkman looking after the lineout and forwards play in conjunction with scrum coach Eric Dasalmartini in a coaching ticket also including Julian Dupuy and Freddie Michalak.

The good times did not exactly come rushing back for the three-time European champions but Toulon have seen off Benetton, London Irish and tournament favourites Saracens to reach tonight’s final while they are now one win away from a Top 14 play-off quarter-final berth with a trip to Racing 92 a week on Sunday.

“There was always the faith that we had enough quality in the room, we just needed to find a way to win,” Coughlan told the Irish Examiner.

“We beat Bordeaux but then lost away to Montpellier but we knew we should have won that game, it was one of those games, but we haven’t been beaten since. So we’ve been on an unbeaten run now since that Montpellier game (on March 12) and when you do that you’ve found a way to get a result.

“We haven’t had too many bumps or knocks, touch wood, but it was like we were playing with half a hand at the start of the season. Now everyone is in good nick and there’s a good vibe in the club. We just have to find a way now to win two games and if we do that we’ve a trophy in the cabinet and a (Top 14) quarter-final to go for.

“That’s where you want to be, like any of the big teams, and it’s in our own hands which is even nicer. We weren’t expecting that a couple of weeks ago when all the other teams around us were winning as well but if we win at Racing we’re in.

“It’s two massive weeks for us and we’ve a bit of a gap between the two as well with the Challenge Cup final on Friday night and the Racing game (a week on) Sunday night but we’ll see where we end up.” 

Toulon have had their South African World Cup winners Cheslin Kolbe and Eben Etzebeth back in harness since the start of December and both have been named by Azema in the starting XV for tonight’s clash with Lyon, a side captained by the fit-again Ollivon.

Coughlan cites an away pool win at Worcester and a narrow quarter-final victory over Declan Kidney’s London Irish as moments in Toulon’s European campaign every bit as pivotal as the 25-16 semi-final win over Saracens a fortnight ago.

“So you look at those kind of results rather than just the Sarries game," he says. "The big players turn up on the big days and we’ve loads of big players who have played in World Cup finals and won Grand Slams so they know what it is to be in a cup match and a big game.

“But we played well against Saracens, we were good. The lineout and scrum worked well, we got a couple of good tries and guys get confidence out of beating good teams like Saracens so we’re in a good spot.

“Lyon have had a tough few weeks in the league and were beaten last weekend by Bordeaux so I’m sure they will be looking to put things right but physically, that’s where the challenge is going to be. The ruck is going to be very important for us and we’re going to have to go back to basics, you know, your lineout and your scrum being effective and taking your opportunities.

“Being disciplined as well because we’ll have an English ref (Luke Pearce) who maybe isn’t used to two French teams so there may be different interpretations at the scrum and the ruck that we’ll have to be aware of and be as clued in as we can be to give ourselves a chance to do it.” 

LYON: T Arnold; J Tuisova, P-L Barassi, C Ngatai, D Niniashvili; L Berdeu, B Couilloud; S Taofifenua, G Marchand, D Bamba; J Kopku, R Taofifenua; D Cretin, P Sobela, J Taufua – captain.

Replacements: M Ivaldi, H Kaabèche, F Gomez Kodela, F Lambey, L Goujon, J-M Doussain, C Fainga'a, X Mignot 

TOULON: A Luc; C Kolbe, J Heriteau, D Paia’aua, G Villiere; L Carbonel, B Serin; J B Gros, C Tolofua, B Gigashvili; E Etzebeth, B Alainu’uese; C Du Preez, C Ollivon – captain, S Parisse.

Replacements: A Etrillard, B Devaux, E Setiano, S Rebbadj, M Smaili, J Blanc, J Naqoli Wainiqolo, F Isa.

Referee: Luke Pearce (England) end

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