Money not the sole cause of Toulon success

Come Sunday the veins under Cedric Abellon’s war paint will be throbbing.

The Scarlets players will find no escape from his abrasive ‘Pilou-Pilou’ chant and Toulon will be primed to carve up Europe as they go in search of three-in-a-row.

In French rugby, money talks as loudly as Abellon’s war cry. The 35-year-old tattoo artist from Toulon has held the microphone before kick-off for around six years now and his eye-popping character is a perfect foil for Toulon’s owner Mourad Boudjellal — the man who made his money from comic books.

The chanting transforms Stade Felix Mayol. Lying empty, the vertical stands and rickety finishing fails to exude anything sinister, but when Abellon fills his lungs the 18,000 which pour into the stadium breathe with the mania of a prison riot.

It’s easy to imagine that once Boudjellal took over in 2006 that finding gimmicks like Abellon were all part of a PR offensive to deflect from the chequebook recruitment which initially attracted the likes George Gregan, Tana Umaga, Sonny Bill Williams and Jonny Wilkinson.

Today the names have changed but their star power remains the same; Bryan Habana, Matt Giteau, Carl Hayman, Leigh Halfpenny, Bakkies Botha and Mamuka Gorgodze all read like a world XV.

The obvious answer to Toulon’s success is Mourad’s millions, but take a closer look and you will discover that money is only an agent of change.

By hook or by crook Boudjellal has created a melting pot of rugby cultures in Toulon’s dressing room and they have now formed an environment of uber-achievers.

In Toulon’s 38-man panel for the newly created Champions Cup, 25 players have been capped at Test level — a boast beaten only by Clermont Auvergne whose squad has 26 internationals but is more reliant on French players.

The reservoir runs at over 1,000 caps shared among seven countries; France, England, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Wales and Georgia.

However, of their five French internationals just Mathieu Bastareaud, Maxime Mermoz and Guilhem Guirado are actively still involved with the national team and that appears to be the secret to Toulon’s success.

When you look at the structure of the Champions Cup the knockout stages are now going to be played out within 29 days from the first quarter-final to the Twickenham decider on May 2. With the Six Nations wrapping up on March 21 it gives clubs just 13 days to prepare for the first knock-out game played on Friday, April 3.

That’s not good news for anyone, but particularly for clubs who are bulk suppliers to their respective national squads. For example, Leinster have at least 21 Irish internationals in their squad, Ulster (14), Munster (13), Glasgow (19), Ospreys (13) while Harlequins, Leicester, Northampton and Saracens are all hovering around the double-figure mark as far as English internationals are concerned.

Considering that most of these players will be out of their club environments from the end of January, it’s going to be near-impossible to reintegrate them all quickly enough to win three knockout matches in the space of a month.

Which brings us back to our friends back on the Mediterranean coast. While the elite talent of Europe will spend February and March battering each other senseless in the name God, queen and Enda, Toulon coach Bernard Laporte will be busy finalising his first and second-best XVs in preparation for Europe.

It’s hard to tell if Toulon’s modus operandi has developed by plan or just happy coincidence. Certainly, success in Europe now encourages clubs to forgo the old-fashioned honourable duty of developing players for the national cause.

In the airline industry they say if a plane is not in the sky, then it’s not making money and for a man like Boudjellal, whose ambitions lie high above the clouds, he might ask what use there is in paying the wages of a player who is duty-bound to play 11 Test matches a season?

Not that he should be too concerned with finances because the French clubs have the biggest muscles of the lot. The Top 14 salary cap is now €10 million while the organisers, Ligue Nationale de Rugby, have agreed a five-year tv deal with Canal Plus worth €355m.

The figures are eye-watering because it means survival of the French clubs isn’t dependent on the expected increase in revenue from the Champions Cup. And yet, they appear to have redrawn the European landscape (to avoid conflicting with the Top 14 run-in) with the English clubs as their willing and witless lapdogs.

The irony about Toulon’s spending is that, according to projected budgets published by Midi Olympique back in August, Boudjellal’s men will trail Toulouse’s €35m budget by €10m with Clermont second on just shy of €28m.

For a little comparative study the lowest figure in the Top 14 was Brive with an estimated budget of €13.6m while the average yearly cost of running an Irish province comes in between €5m to €8m at most.

On this island we talk reverently about the influence and impact foreign players such as John Langford, Doug Howlett, Felipe Contepomi, Isa Nacewa and Johann Muller have had on the development of our own indigenous stars.

In Toulon they disposed of the natives, multiplied the process and allowed the world’s elite to get the best out of each other every week.

Now that is something to shout about.


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