It’s five years since mighty Toulouse last won a trophy, their longest barren spell since the early 1980s. Has it become a comfort-zone club, and how much responsibility must the man who turned Toulouse into a European powerhouse bear for that?
It was a famous day in 2008 when Munster beat Toulouse to win the Heineken Cup, confirmation to the Red Army their boys were truly the dominant force in European rugby.
That was because Munster had defeated the club that, for over a decade, had ruled the tournament with magisterial grace.
It was Toulouse who won the inaugural final, defeating Cardiff in 1996, and who between 2003 and 2008 appeared in four more finals, winning two of them, to become the first club to clinch a hat-trick of European crowns.
Little did we know in 2008 that defeat would herald the start of a slow and painful decline for Toulouse.
They still had the firepower to win a fourth European title in 2010, beating Biarritz in an all-French affair, but it was a dour match, a sign of things to come for the aristocrats. They couldn’t muster a try, relying instead on penalties and drop goals, a sad indictment of a club that, for the previous two decades, had spoiled us with their sumptuous skill.
The names roll off the tongue: Émile Ntamack, Michel Marfaing, Thomas Castaignède, Yannick Jauzion, Clément Poitrenaud, and Frédéric Michalak. They scored tries for fun.
Marfaing’s 24 in Europe’s showpiece tournament remained a record until overtaken by another Toulouse winger, Vincent Clerc, whose 36 continue to top the charts. Twenty-seven of Clerc’s tries were scored in 44 matches between 2002 to 2008; in the seven seasons that followed he managed just nine in 39 appearances.
No wonder he left the club last summer.
By all accounts, Clerc was in the vanguard of what this summer will be a mass exodus. La Depeche, Toulouse’s local paper, claimed 20 players will leave at the end of this season.
Head coach Ugo Mola said while he “respects the generation of Toulouse players who lifted a lot of trophies with the club”, it is nonetheless time to rebuild. Among those leaving or retiring are Samoan prop Census Johnston, Kiwi fly-half Luke McAlister, and a clutch of Frenchmen including Thierry Dusautoir, Yoann Maestri, Grégory Lamboley, Christopher Tolofua and Yacouba Camara.
Tolofua, who is joining Saracens, was once hailed as the future of French rugby. The hooker won his first cap for France in 2012, aged just 18, but only four more have followed. For several seasons he’s stagnated, which is why it’s the right decision to seek a fresh challenge.
As it was a few seasons ago for Rémi Lamerat and Julien Le Devedec, both capped by France since leaving Toulouse, and most notably for Louis Picamoles, who joined Northampton last summer and is now in the form of his life, as he demonstrated during the recent Six Nations.
Why have these players thrived since quitting Toulouse?
Because they’re challenging themselves in a new environment, asking questions of themselves as rugby players and human beings. To be blunt, Toulouse has become a comfort-zone club, which is why they lie 10th in the Top 14, in danger of failing to qualify for the Champions Cup for the first time in the tournament’s history. It’s five years since they last won a trophy, their longest barren spell since the early 1980s.
That was the era when Guy Noves played for the club on the wing, the man who was responsible for turning Toulouse into a European powerhouse but the man, too, who bears much of the blame for their present plight.
Noves has much in common with Arsene Wenger, aside from the fact they’re Frenchmen of the same generation. They’re intelligent but arrogant, determined but stubborn, a pair of autocrats who like to surround themselves with sycophants and yes men. Wenger replaced Pat Rice as Arsenal assistant with Steve Bould; Noves also employed former players, like William Servat, Yannick Bru and Jean-Baptiste Élissalde, men who would never challenge their master’s authority.
Once Wenger and Noves were innovators but they’ve been overtaken by time, and neither has the humility to step aside.
Instead, they cling grimly to past glories; in Noves’ case, during his 22 years in charge of Toulouse, it was four European titles and six Top 14 crowns between 1994 and 2001. Wenger’s glory years were 1997 to 2004 when he guided the Gunners to three league titles and four FA Cups, playing a stylish brand of football that blended elegance with aggression.
When Noves finally severed his umbilical cord to Toulouse to take charge of France after the 2015 World Cup he left behind a club in disarray. He’d been there for so long the only way was the Noves way. Ugo Mola, Noves’ successor, had to start from scratch, and so far he’s not made a good fist of it.
But was he the right man to replace Noves in the first place? At the time the club talked about ‘continuation’, replacing one former Toulouse player with another, but the world has moved on and it might be time for the club to do the unthinkable and look overseas for fresh ideas. A tough-talking coach from the southern hemisphere might be shake Toulouse from their torpor.
But even if they wanted, could Toulouse afford a Vern Cotter or Warren Gatland? The club isn’t rolling in cash and while Mola may talk about his desire to overhaul the squad he might have to do with the academy players.
The reason 22-year-old international flanker Yacouba Camara is joining Montpellier next season is because they offered him €45,000 a month, a salary far beyond Toulouse’s means. The same for the Argentina back-row star, Facundo Isa, who was linked to Toulouse at the start of the year, before opting for Toulon.
For four seasons the club has been in financial deficit, and although they’ve had the reserves to cover the shortfall, a report in Midi Olympique last month claimed Toulouse are now “seriously” short of funds.
Their problems have been exacerbated in the last three years by a drop in attendance as well as sponsorship with Airbus dealing Toulouse the biggest blow when they withdrew their name from the shirts in 2015.
As for the average gate for home matches, that’s been in steady decline, from 20,948 in 2011-12 to an average this season of 13,502. It’s not only the changing room where changes will be made this summer.
A broom is also being taken to the board room, where for the last 25 years Rene Bouscatel has presided. He’s stepping down as president and although there was talk earlier in the season of a “war of clans” it seems it could, in fact, be a bloodless revolution with two former players, Didier Lacroix and Herve Lecomte, taking charge.
Their job will be to raise capital - an estimated €6m if Toulouse is secure its financial future - a task made more complicated by the fact 51% of the club’s shares are owned by the amateur section.
Attracting capital will be all the easier if Toulouse can end the season as winners but that looks unlikely. Way off the pace in the Top 14, the club will have to produce the performance of their season if they’re to beat Munster.
They’ve played at Thomond Park once before, in the 2014 quarter-final, when they were thumped 47-23. The extent of Toulouse’s fall from grace was illustrated by Monday’s edition of Midi Olympique, which under the headline, ‘Monuments in Peril’, drew parallels with Stade Francais.
The two clubs contested the 2005 Heineken Cup final but what an age ago that now feels. While Stade’s future remains parlous, Toulouse must break with the past if they wish once more to become a European powerhouse. That starts with a new business model, a 21st century one.
“Toulouse no longer has a choice and must adapt,” warned Midi Olympique.
If they don’t, then the club that was once the prince of Europe could end its days in a pauper’s grave.
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