There isn’t a club in Europe that can match Toulouse for tradition and history but the French giants travel to Limerick this week weighed down by the woes of the current generation rather than the haul of silverware that once made them the most feared side on the continent.
Nineteen times French champions and four times the best side in Europe, Stade Toulousain haven’t claimed a major title since 2012 and they face Munster in Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final on the back of just one win from six in the Top 14.
With ever more money flowing into the French game, Toulouse are now just another one of the big spenders. The defeat at home to La Rochelle last month was the perfect example of how these traditional giants are being usurped by those who were for so long beneath them.
La Rochelle sit top of the table now, 10 points clear of Clermont Auvergne. Toulouse are ninth and, though only three points separate them from the sixth and last play-off spot, they are edgy about the prospect of missing out on the end-of-season dance for the first time in over 40 years.
“There is a lot of negativity around the club at the moment with us not doing so well,” said the Kiwi Luke McAlister. “That’s normal when a club like Toulouse aren’t in the top half of the table. It’s not normal for a club like this. There is a lot of expectation around the club and we’re probably the first to feel it.
“We’re just trying to channel that negativity and not try and get too pressured by it. It’s not easy to do but we’re just trying to go out and there and play our best. It’s just unfortunate that we are not getting results going our way. We don’t want to be in this position so it’s a tough time for us at the moment, it’s not easy.”
With trophies now evading them, the new norm for Toulouse is a quarter-final here and a semi-final there. McAlister has spent six years at the club and, after two winning seasons, he has seen first-hand the relative decline and has reportedly opted to make the move to Toulon this summer.
There was a time when it seemed he might sign for Munster.
Back in 2007 he had the pick of the Irish province, Toulouse or Sale but was ultimately drawn to the English north-west after 19 All Black caps by the memories of 10 years spent in Manchester as a child when his dad Charlie played league for Oldham, Castleford and Sheffield Eagles.
The way he explained it this week, there was never really any major contest for his affections at the time so he will take to Thomond Park this weekend hoping it is a case of third time lucky after one traumatic visit with the Sharks and another with Toulouse.
Part of a decent Sale team that was swatted aside 37-14 in January of 2009, his Toulouse shipped 10 points more when they faced Rob Penney’s Munster at the Limerick venue in a Heineken Cup quarter-final three years ago.
Fourteen of that 2014 Toulouse squad, 11 of the starters and three of the replacements, are still with the club so it seems inconceivable that the spectre of that six-try humiliation will not be referenced before their latest crack at the knockout stages.
“We’ll probably go to the ground on Friday so the new boys and the younger boys can get a feel for the park,” McAlister explained. “It’s an atmosphere I’ve never experienced before, they don’t say anything when you’ve got a shot at goal. It’s the only stadium in the world where they do that.
“It’s quite intimidating as a player but I’m sure the older boys will try to give the younger boys a heads up.
“It’s a great experience and something the young boys are going to thrive on, I think. It’s an awesome place, one of my favourite stadiums to play in.”
The mood music surrounding Conor Murray’s shoulder and potential availability improved with an encouraging if cryptic tweet yesterday from the Limerick man but Munster possess plenty of other weapons and McAlister will be especially aware of the danger posed by his fellow Kiwi Tyler Blyendaal.
“He’s killing it at the moment,” said the 33-year-old. “He’s doing really well.
“He’s leading his side really well. He’s driving them around the field really well so he’s obviously one we need to watch out for on Saturday.”
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