Toulon are hard to love but easy to envy

Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal shows off the European Champions Cup

Maybe there will have to be a law against Toulon, one denouncing them as bad for business because they are too good for everyone else.

An open-and-shut case, your Honour.

Now that they have completed an unprecedented European hat-trick, they will probably make it six on the trot judging by the next batch of superstars sailing full-steam ahead for Napoleon’s old watering hole on the Mediterranean.

The rest, including Leinster, Munster and Ulster, can only hope the legal eagles find an excuse to invoke the European Union Competition Law and lock them up.

Not content at being able to pick two virtually complete international XV’s, the holders have signed four more Test players and are in the market for another four into the bargain.

Mourad Boudjellal does not plan on letting anyone else have a look-in for some while yet.

The way many neutrals see them, Toulon are more Mayweather than Pacquiao, more Chelsea than Arsenal — hard to love, easy to envy.

They keep winning and the more they win, the more their creator is portrayed as the arch-villain accused of destabilising the sport.

Boudjellal has never given a monkey’s what other people think, least of all the Union Establishment. Toulon had just come up from the second tier when he first outlined his plan to buy the best, so everyone knew he would be pushing the boat out. What nobody knew was that he would be pushing an entire fleet out which takes some doing in Toulon, a naval port of such importance that back then two-thirds of the French Navy were anchored there, an armada including the country’s nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle.

As far as one former Wales captain is concerned, Boudjellal should be keelhauled. The charge sheet, as drawn up by Paul Thorburn, the full-back who kicked the longest penalty ever seen at Cardiff Arms Park, is almost as long as that 72-yard goal. Thorburn would have Boudjellal indicted on killing the club game (‘It will die if this carries on’), ruining the France national team by importing too many foreigners and turning the Champions’ Cup into a foregone conclusion. The Welshman would certainly support a law against them in their current form.

“Toulon should have to field a majority of home-grown players in their matchday squad,’’ he says. “Perhaps they should have no more than three non-French nationals.”

Sacre bleu! They only had four in the entire starting XV, one more, admittedly, than in last year’s final and just one from the town itself, Xavier Chiocci who sounds more like an exotic ice-cream cone than a loosehead.

There could be fewer still next year because room will have to be found for All Black centre Ma’a Nonu, the American Eagle back-rower Samu Manoa and Wallaby prop Salesi Ma’afu both arriving from Northampton plus Clermont’s Fijian wing Napolioni Nalaga — all perfectly legal and above board. On top of that Duane Vermeulen, the world’s best No. 8 after the Kiwi Kieran Read, will probably be arriving post-World Cup as well as the quixotic Quade Cooper and the Springbok prop Coenie ‘Shrek’ Oosthuizen from the Cheetahs.

As if that’s not enough to float a few more boats, Toulon have asked Greg Inglis’ advisers to name a price for the Rabbitohs’ full back, the brightest star in Australian Rugby League.

Boudjellal has turned Europe into a one-horse race, the way Michael Schumacher did in Formula One and Tiger Woods in golf before the ex-Mrs Tiger began swinging his 9-iron.

Far from being outlawed, he deserves credit for doing much more than merely buying big names at exorbitant prices.

Imitators, like Jacky Lorenzetti of Racing Metro, have splashed out more on one player (Dan Carter, £1.3m per year) but nobody does it better than The Monopoly Man.

Jealousy can be a terrible thing …

 

Far from vintage effort from organisers

When the Anglo-French clubs not unreasonably wrestled control from the Unions to run their own club tournaments in Europe, giving away tickets for the first Champions’ Cup final was not part of the plan.

In the end they drummed up enough support for the all-French affair to avert fears that Twickenham would set an empty-seat record for a final.

Instead of the feared 40,000, they filled enough to whittle it down to 25,000 (empty seats) and even the old regime would admit that this was one of the better finals.

But, any objective end-of-term report requires looking beyond the wondrous tries of Nick Abendanon and Drew Mitchell to ask some awkward questions of the organisers.

Why did they agree to an absurdly short two-week gap between semi-finals and final? Why allow the European final to be rushed off before the three domestic finals.

Why devalue the second-tier European Challenge Cup by denying the winner automatic access to the Champions’ Cup? No wonder hardly a single French club bothered to take it seriously.

Deeper questions need to be addressed. How many, or more pertinently, how few French clubs see Europe as the ultimate goal? Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont, for sure but that’s about it.

And when, oh when, will the promoters pluck up the courage to take the final out of its British-Irish straitjacket to places like Brussels, Barcelona, Milan or Amsterdam?

Their over-reliance on Cardiff and Twickenham makes the European part of European Professional Club Rugby a misnomer.

Trust the unpredictable French to show them the way by relocating next year’s Top 14 final into Barcelona’s Nou Camp with its 99,000 seats.

 


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