Mathieu Bastareaud has always stood out in a crowd, never more so than when surrounded by some of the most famous players in the world.
There is so much of him that finding a way around the largest of French centres requires undertaking a tricky exercise in logistics — hazardous by nature but infinitely more sensible than trying to go through him.
At 6ft and more than 17st he is formidable enough to create the optical illusion of being almost as broad as he is long, a terrestrial version of the amphibious cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants except that the Toulon captain comes kitted out with the square jersey to boot.
Of all the global superstars shipped into the old French port courtesy of Mourad Boudjellal’s largesse, none have stayed longer than Bastareaud. Since coming on board from Stade Francais seven years ago, the Parisian has been the one constant factor in Toulon’s three-year rule over Europe between 2013 and 2015.
Bastareaud is the only one to have started all three finals, a hat-trick beyond even the telescopic reach of the club’s most celebrated import, Jonny Wilkinson whose time there lasted for five years.
He and the rest of the backs — Bryan Habana, Matt Giteau, Drew Mitchell, Delon Armitage, Sebastian Tillous-Borde — have all retired or jumped ship, leaving the dreadlocked centre as the last link to when Toulon’s warships ruled the waves just as they had done in Napoleonic times.
No longer merely one of a lavishly paid crew, Bastareaud is now at the helm, in command of a ship still potent enough to destroy those who dare cross her bows.
Clermont, still the best club not to have won Europe’s ultimate prize, did so last week and finished up like the boy on the burning deck, trounced 49-0.
For a club used to Boudjellal’s clout ensuring home advantage in the last eight, the ex-champions made such a mess of getting there that they almost missed the last boat.
They got the last berth by grace of one bonus point, a losing one snatched at Parc y Scarlets after the PRO14 champions had beaten them in the last pool match on January 20.
Bastareaud had no option but to sit that one out at the start of a three-week ban after pleading guilty to aiming homophobic abuse at Italy flanker Sebastian Negri during the home win over Benetton. The suspension also allowed Ireland to give the French super-heavyweight the widest of berth at the start of the Six Nations.
Nobody can ever say whether Bastareaud would have turned the tide of history because nobody will ever know but the thought will surely be there at the back of his mind this afternoon. Munster will not need to be advised about his wrecking-ball quality and the damage inflicted on England and Wales at the back end of the Six Nations.
Having seen Ireland clean up in his absence from the Test arena, the last thing Bastareaud wants is to see one of their provincial teams do the same in his presence, not when a home semi-final is to be won on the Cote d’Azur.
He can have no complaints at having to take a roundabout route to get there. A pool campaign marred by defeats at Bath as well as in West Wales meant that Toulon were lucky to have any route at all. Scenic is unlikely to be the word uppermost in their minds but neutrals would expect them to be smart enough to know a bit about Thomond Park and what it stands for.
Fifteen years have come and gone since Gloucester fell victims to the ‘Miracle Match’ there for reasons blindingly clear to those of us who witnessed it. The hidden reason had everything to do with the venue’s capacity for generating fire and fury on a scale beyond anything the Gloucester players had experienced anywhere else.
Toulon are unlikely to fall into the same trap, not least because they have sampled the humbling experience that comes with careering headlong into a Munster team in full cry at their shrine, one almost doubled in size and grandeur long since the Gloucester miracle.
Tony McGahan’s team hammered them 45-18 in October 2010, so long ago that Wilkinson came off the bench to replace Felipe Contepomi at stand-off and drop a goal. Set against six converted Munster tries, including two from Doug Howlett, it must qualify by some distance as the most insignificant goal Wilkinson ever dropped.
Bastareaud would be much amused that in spite of all the forbidding history his opposite number, Peter O’Mahony, has spoken of Munster ‘thriving on being underdogs.’
Munster at Thomond Park? Underdogs? If that’s O’Mahony’s way of dampening expectation on behalf of a team wounded by injury, notably in the back row, then the bookmakers are not listening. All the major companies, without any obvious exception, quote Munster as odds-on to reach the semi-finals.
Perhaps not surprisingly, O’Mahony made no reference to Toulon’s chronic failure on the road. Six successive away defeats in the Top 14, including those at the bottom trio of Oyonnax, Agen and Brive, suggest a travel sickness unlikely to be cured in, of all places, Limerick.
No French team has won a quarter-final in Limerick. Stade Francais lost there in 2000, Biarritz in 2002, Toulouse in 2014 and again three years later. Toulon will have arrived armed with an unshakeable conviction in their ability to finish first.
Boudjellal’s wealth has transformed the club, converted the club into serial winners on a scale grand enough to inspire comparison to Real Madrid or Barcelona. He will claim he has done so not because of the Top 14, but in spite of them.
“French rugby is communist,’’ he declared recently. “They want all the teams to have the same points. They want everyone as equals.’’
At times Boudjellal’s wrath appears to know no bounds. When the Champions’ Cup organisers dared to charge Bastareaud over his homophobic outburst, the captain’s employer singled out ‘the Welsh and the Irish.’
“I am worried,’’ he was quoted as saying. “These are people who sell morality when they do not have it.’’
The hypocrisy will not be lost on those all over Ireland aggrieved at having allowed the 2023 World Cup to be picked from their pocket by the French. If by tomorrow, the prospect of an all-Ireland Champions’ Cup in Bilbao looms ever nearer, that will be seen as some compensation.
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