Rugby Club Toulonnais was founded in 1908, with their first Bouclier de Brennus coming in 1931 after a 6-3 win over Lyon. The victorious team were greeted by 30,000 supporters on their return to Toulon, before a riotous night of celebration. It was 57 years before RCT had the opportunity to repeat the party, when a 15-12 win over Racing gave them their second French championship in 1987. The success was repeated in ’92, with two drop-goals from Yann Delaigue helping Toulon to their most recent league title.
The summer of 2000 saw RCT relegated to the second division due to a reported €1.5 million deficit in their accounts. In 2005, Toulon were promoted as champions of the Pro D2 but were relegated the following season. Mourad Boudjellal, who made his fortune in comic books, was subsequently elected as president and orchestrated the first wave of high-profile recruitment. Since promotion in 2008, Toulon have lost four finals (two Top 14s, two Challenge Cups) but last season’s Heineken Cup victory was just reward for Boudjellal’s passion.
Toulon is situated on the Mediterranean coast in southwestern France and has a population of around 170,000. With sunshine all year, delicious food and a laid-back way of life, it is the ideal place for older professionals to eke more years out of their careers. Toulon’s home stadium is the Stade Mayol, which holds 15,100 loud supporters. RCT are famous for their pre-match Pilou Pilou war chant as the players come onto the field. It’s a special atmosphere and an intimidating arena.
Bernard Laporte’s men topped the regular season from round four all the way to round 24, before Clermont finished the stronger in the final two games. That meant Toulon drew Toulouse in the semi-final, where they dispatched Guy Novès’ side 24-9. However, the final was one step too far for RCT as a fresher Castres deservedly won. The fact that Toulon had already won a first-ever Heineken Cup two weeks before made the loss easier to accept. The H Cup success was Toulon’s first trophy under Boudjellal, and probably the first of many.
Having won in Europe, les Toulonnais now have their sights set on domestic success. Boudjellal and most of the club’s dirigeants are keen to assert their dominance over the Top 14. By adding to Toulon’s existing base of stars this summer, Boudjellal has provided Laporte with all the tools he needs to compete for both trophies this season. Toulon’s squad is bursting with proven winners, as well as previously unseen levels of experience. Boudjellal continues to pose Toulon as underdogs to Toulouse and Clermont in public, but privately he knows RCT are out in front.
Bernard Laporte’s official title of Sporting Director is apt for describing his role. The former scrumhalf won a French championship with Bordeaux in 1991 before moving into coaching with the same club. In 1995, he dropped down to the third division to join Stade Français and backed by Max Guazzini’s millions, remarkably led the Parisians to a French championship in 1998. Two years later he took charge of the national side, the first head coach of les Blues who hadn’t been capped himself.
In seven years with Laporte at the helm France won four Six Nations titles, two of them Grand Slams. Following the semi-final loss to England at the 2007 World Cup, Laporte resigned. After administrative roles with the French government, Bayonne and Stade Français, Laporte took over at Toulon in 2011. The 49-year-old leaves the coaching to Jacques Delmas (forwards) and Pierre Mignoni (backs), but he is the selector, motivator and public face of the team.
Just when it looked like Toulon’s squad couldn’t get any more experienced, they signed Bryan Habana, Drew Mitchell, Ali Williams and Martin Castrogiovanni. Habana and Mitchell add world-class finishing ability to a squad which already included four excellent wingers. While Toulon do approach knock-out games with less attacking ambition, they generally play with an open style of rugby, highlighted by 69 tries in the Top 14 last season. That means Habana and Mitchell will get their hands on the ball often, while both are also excellent kick chasers.
New Zealander Williams replaces the excellent Nick Kennedy, and his partnership with Bakkies Botha should be formidable. Both proven winners, it’s a pairing that opposition second rows will relish challenging. Italian cult hero Castrogiovanni’s rotation with Carl Hayman at tighthead will be important under the fatiguing new scrum laws. The other additions are scrumhalf Michael Claassens (30), who has impressed in pre season, and loosehead prop Emmanuel Felsina (28), who was playing in Fédérale 1 as recently as 2011 but is highly-rated.
Jonny Wilkinson enjoys the status of a deity in the Var département, and deservedly so. Any foreign player looking for an example of how to integrate into French life need look no further than the former England outhalf. Once plagued by injuries, the 34-year-old had started 104 games for RCT since joining in 2009. Outside Wilko, Aussie centre Matt Giteau does much of the playmaking and his passing and vision are crucial to the Toulon backline.
Another Englishman who has adapted to life at Toulon with success is Andrew Sheridan, selected as the best prop in France by Midi Olympique. Anyone who watched the 33-year-old last season would have been surprised not to see him involved with the Lions, but Sheridan is perfectly content with life in Toulon. At lock, Bakkies Botha had a phenomenal season as he established himself as the premier lock in the Top 14. While he has had inexcusable moments of ill-discipline in the past, the donkey work he does cannot be underestimated.
In the back row, the classy skills of Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe are inspirational. Picking out strengths is a difficult task because the Argentine captain is so complete. While he attends to the Rugby Championship, Steffon Armitage will look to step up. Having been the standout player of the 2011/12 Top 14 campaign, the explosive 27-year-old had to take a back seat on Toulon’s journey to the Heineken Cup trophy last season. Chris Masoe’s power from number eight is another crucial part of Toulon’s set-up.
This RCT squad is stacked with ability, experience, aggression, power and depth. While it has become popular to dislike the club and question their style of play, that only aids their mental strength. The puppet master Boudjellal is a genius at drawing the pressure towards himself and allowing the players to focus on winning. It’s an intelligent formula and could lead to Toulon’s first French title in over 20 years.
Possible Starting XV
15. Armitage, 14. Mitchell, 13. Bastareaud, 12. Giteau, 11. Habana, 10. Wilkinson, 9. Michalak, 8. Masoe, 7. Armitage, 6. Fernandez Lobbe, 5. Williams, 4. Botha, 3. Hayman, 2. Bruno, 1. Sheridan
Photos: Pierre-Selim, Philippe Marc, Noëmie Haffner, Yann Caradec.