End of an era?

They sit atop the French championship and have qualified for yet another Heineken Cup quarter-final but there’s something not quite right at Toulouse this season, writes Ian Moriarty

IT’S Saturday afternoon in Toulouse’s Place Saint-Etienne, like any other day in the southern French city. The second-hand book market that graces this triangular ‘square’ in front of the city’s ancient St Etienne cathedral has finished, and the lunch-goers at the adjacent restaurant have long since departed.

Nearby, the terrace of La Sylene café bustles with those enjoying a drink in the afternoon sunshine. Within minutes, however, the feel-good atmosphere disappears. Shoulders are shrugged, heads shook and a gaggle of middle-aged men start gesticulating wildly. The final score has just filtered through from Stade Colombes in Paris — Toulouse have lost 43-21 to Racing Metro.

Stade Toulousain, the world’s most successful club side, are entering a period of transition. To use the words ‘decline’ or ‘demise’ would seem like gross stupidity because given the money and expertise at hand in La Ville Rose, it’s unlikely to be for too long. That will depend on their veteran coach Guy Noves and his ability to work his magic as he has done in the past — but with an ageing squad and younger players who have yet to cut it, Noves has a job on his hands.

He’s been here before, of course. The current side is probably the fourth generation with the veteran coach in charge and each time the club has lost a Califano, a Castaignède or a Pelous, Noves has responded. However, with close to a dozen key players now in their thirties and playing in a league that is not particularly kind on the body, this transition will be tougher than any that have gone before.

Veteran Midi Olympique journalist Serge Manificat has been following the fortunes of Toulouse since their first recent ‘golden generation’ back in the 1980s. He believes that the club has been too slow to replace ageing players and too hesitant to trust their own youngsters.

“Toulouse tried to get the maximum amount out of certain players but the reality of it is that some of them should have been replaced a year or two earlier,” explains Manificat.

“The key to creating successive generations of teams is to stagger the careers of players to an extent. But if you stagger too much, you won’t have enough experience. And all this is dependent on being lucky with the players that come through your academy and being successful with the ones you bring in.”

Manificat’s point would ring a bell with most who have any interest in Toulouse’s great European rivals, Munster. If you believe some sections of the media, the Irish province have had an ageing side for much of the last decade but the age profile of the two teams when they met in the 2008 Heineken Cup final was almost identical. Manificat believes the problems that the two European superpowers face can be found in every sport.

“It’s part of life, isn’t it,” he muses. “In France, we had the great eras of Lourdes in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Beziers in the ‘70s and ‘80s and Toulouse have dominated since. Growing old together is a fundamental problem that’s been found in all sports.

“Take the Liverpool team of the late ‘80s, the great Chicago Bulls basketball side of the ‘90s or the England World Cup-winning team of 2003 and you find great sporting sides that grew up and improved together before petering out after winning everything they could.”

Seasoned internationals such as Yannick Jauzion, Cedric Heymans and William Servat no longer look like the force they were in previous years, while a combination of injuries and poor form has meant that the club has suffered at half-back since the retirement of the ultra-stable Jean-Baptiste Elissalde. The mercurial Frederic Michalak has once more taken over the number nine shirt in the absence of the injured Byron Kelleher but he too has seemed devoid of inspiration.

Even the wonderful Thierry Dusautoir has struggled for form recently, no doubt still recovering from the psychological pounding he received as captain of Marc Lièvremont’s France side. Meanwhile, the club waits anxiously to see if the young Toulonais Yoann Maestri will assume the mantle vacated by the great Fabien Pelous over a year ago.

Yet you look at the French championship league table and it seems like business as usual. Toulouse remain in pole position to qualify for the Top 14 play-offs. The winning mentality that Noves inherited and made his own back in the early ‘90s still exists, a fact reflected in their league position. But tell that to any of those local fans back in Place Saint-Etienne and they respond with the allegation that Toulouse have lost their va-va-voom.

The warning signs are to be found in this season’s Heineken Cup too. Noves’ men were lucky to beat an average Wasps team at home and despite having strugglers Glasgow and Newport Gwent Dragons in their pool, they still missed out on the all-important home quarter-final.

As Munster supporters can testify, Biarritz in San Sebastian are just about as tough as it gets in the Heineken Cup.

There are also question marks over the future of Noves himself. The 59-year-old has never publicly discussed his future at the club apart from reaffirming his passion for the job from time to time.

While it would be almost impossible to imagine a Toulouse without Noves, the odds narrowed recently when it was revealed the man responsible for the club’s finances over the last 15 years had left the club. A close friend and ally of Noves at the club, Claude Helias reportedly left because he was unhappy with certain aspects of the club’s direction.

However, there are plenty who have few worries about the club’s future. Legendary former Toulouse and France coach Pierre Villepreux is quick to remind people that all the key ingredients remain in place at Stade Ernest Wallon.

Villepreux was in charge when Toulouse won their first French Championship title in 38 years back in 1985. He also fostered and encouraged the idea that the club was a family that nurtured its young in the academy and looked after the elderly (or retired players) through its contacts in business.

“Very little has changed,” says Villepreux. “Toulouse is a family where the players were encouraged to think so it’s no surprise that they’ve never needed to bring in coaches from the outside.

“Toulouse were the first team in the modern era to offer people something a little different. I believe more and more that the French clubs are starting to prioritise the H Cup. But it was Toulouse who were at the heart of starting an H Cup.”

There’s no doubt that the game would be poorer today without the contributions of the club, Villepreux and Noves, and while there will always be those who revel in another club’s travails, it’s hard to see how Toulouse would be down for long.

The return of Vincent Clerc to something close to his best form has been a boon for the club while Maxime Médard has recovered from a bout of second season syndrome to star as Toulouse’s best back this year. Then there is 20-year-old scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain, who already looks like an international in waiting.

Yet the fact that he seems like the first player since Médard to fully graduate from the academy puts the problem back in the spotlight — most of the young French talent in the squad has been bought in over the last few years, while youngsters such as Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Belie have been allowed to leave.

The locals in Place Saint-Etienne will be joined by interested bystanders from across Europe watching what happens next very closely indeed.`

Toulouse OAPs

Patricio Albacete (30), Jean Bouhilou (32), Rupeni Caucauibuca (30), Vilimoni Delasau (33), Cedric Heymans (32), Daan Human (34), Yannick Jauzion (32), Byron Kelleher (34), Benoit Lecouls (33), Jean-Baptiste Poux (32), William Servat (33), David Skrela (32), Shaun Sowerby (32)


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