With 19 French championships and five Heineken Cups to their name, Stade Toulousain are perhaps the greatest club in rugby history. Having won the first edition of the Heineken Cup in 1996, Toulouse have been involved every year since. In the last six seasons, they have won three French titles and a H Cup. Toulouse have been involved in the last 20 French championship semi-finals. The longevity of their success is phenomenal, and the club plans to persist.
In February 2013 the club opened a state-of-the-art training facility, fully kitted out with gym, video analysis room, recovery areas and much more. The new training centre allows Toulouse to focus on their commitment to developing French players from within. Toulouse are also an integral part of plans to build a ‘Cité du Rugby’ (an interactive museum of world rugby) on the island of Ramier near the centre of the city. With a budget of €35.4 million, Stade Toulousain are still the biggest club in France.
The city of Toulouse lies in the Midi-Pyrénées region in the south of France. With a population of over 440,000 la ville rose is the fourth-largest city in the country. Stade Toulousain’s home is the 19,500-capacity Stade Ernest-Wallon. In recent years, the big games have been moved to the 36,000-capacity Stadium Municipal de Toulouse (also on on Ramier Island), but refurbishment for Euro 2016 means the club won’t have access until late 2015, a blow to revenue.
Toulouse finished the regular season table in third, but were a disappointing 11 points behind second-placed Toulon. That gave Guy Novès’ men a home barrages match, where they dealt with Racing Metro. The semi-final loss to Toulon that followed was crushing for Novès, who questioned the club’s direction and recruitment policy in the aftermath. Toulouse looked threatening, but Toulon’s ability to score points was the only aspect of the game that mattered.
In the Heineken Cup, Toulouse failed to advance from the group stages for the first time since 2007. After dropping into the Challenge Cup, a weakened team was downed by USAP.
After such an unsatisfactory campaign, Toulouse are focused on winning the Top 14. While a Heineken Cup success would be welcome, it is domestically that les Toulousains will concentrate. That focus has seen a slight shift in policy at a club famed for its strong “made in France” playing core. With the doublons (games on the same weekends as international fixtures) still a challenging feature of the Top 14, Novès’ transfer policy this summer was centered on “foreigners of top-quality”. Toulouse lost to Agen (away), USAP (home) and Toulon (away) during the Six Nations last season. Noves is hoping that won’t be repeated.
Born in Toulouse, 259 appearances on the wing for Stade Toulousain and the club’s coach since 1988 in which time he has won 10 French championships and four Heineken Cups; if ever a club was intrinsically tied up with an individual, it is Toulouse with Guy Novès. Searingly intelligent, irrationally angry, optimistic and despairing in differing circumstances, the 59-year-old’s passion for the club is inspirational. There was an unsettling sense that Novès was tiring of the constant challenge last season, a feeling that Toulouse are a force in decline.
However, Novès insists he is ready for the new season, refreshed and motivated. He has called on his French internationals in particular to step up and be counted in the Top 14. Whenever he does decide to retire, it is likely that Novès will finish on a winning note, leaving by the back door without fuss.
Capped 14 times for the All Blacks, Hosea Gear is exactly the type of signing Novès wanted. The 29-year-old wing is a powerful finisher coming off the back of a Super Rugby season in which he scored eight tries for the Hurricanes. With Vincent Clerc being nursed back from a knee injury, Gear’s impact will be crucial. Springbok Chiliboy Ralepelle is another big-name addition, although the hooker will only arrive in October after the Rugby Championship. William Servat will hope to retire properly this season.
Another new signing delayed until October is Jano Vermaak (28). The South African scrumhalf joins from the Bulls to provide competition for Jean-Marc Doussain. Completing the quartet of new top-class foreigners is Joe Tekori, moving from Castres. The explosive Samoan’s ability to cover lock and the back-row will be useful. Novès has brought in two French players in creative outhalf Jean-Pascal Barraque (22) from Biarritz and the athletic flanker Yacouba Camara (19) from Massy. Both are excellent prospects.
Thierry Dusautoir is captain and one of the greatest leaders by example. His work-rate in defence often overshadows the excellent work The Dark Destroyer does in attack, freeing up others to do what they do best. Louis Picamoles appreciates the opportunity to carry as often as possible, and at 27 is hitting his prime. The France number eight is simply very difficult to tackle. His powerful hand-off is matched by a high degree of strength in the hips and legs, making low tackles no guarantee. The more he sees of the ball, the better Toulouse are.
Luke McAlister is the premier outhalf in France at his best, but there are days when you have to wonder if he is an outhalf at all. His powerful running can tear teams to shreds, but it is his ability to direct play around the pitch that provides doubts. If Toulouse are going to win the Top 14, McAlister needs a good season. In the centre, Gaël Fickou faces the task of replacing the retired Yannick Jauzion. Still only 19, Fickou has a different style but possesses all the skills needed to make himself the best centre in the league over the next three years.
In the engine room, the likes of Yoann Maestri, Romain Millo-Chluski, Census Johnston and Gurthrö Steenkamp will be busy getting their hands dirty. At close to 140kg, Johnston is a man mountain but he can play a bit too. At loosehead, Steenkamp will miss the opening rounds due to the Rugby Championship. Maestri is one of the most complete locks in France at 25, while Millo-Chluski (30) and Patricio Albacete do the unglamorous work. Out wide, the likes of Yoann Huget and Clément Poitrenaud offer a suave counter-attacking threat.
While he’s not strictly involved with Toulouse any longer, Trevor Brennan maintains strong ties with the club. The two-time Heineken Cup winner runs the De Danú bar in Toulouse, which is a must-visit on any rugby trip to la ville rose. There is still a Brennan on the books at Stade Toulousain, in the former Ireland lock’s 14-year-old son Daniel. Already the focus of a Midi Olympique article, the 6ft 2ins, 121kg prop says he would consider playing for France if the opportunity arose. One for the future as Toulouse look to return to the summit of French club rugby.
Possible Starting XV
15. Huget 14. Matanavou, 13. Fritz, 12. Fickou, 11. Gear, 10. McAlister, 9. Doussain, 8. Picamoles, 7. Nyanga, 6. Dusautoir, 5. Maestri, 4. Albacete, 3. Johnston, 2. Ralepelle, 1. Steenkamp