The slow decline of Toulouse

Date published: September 17 2014

On Saturday Toulouse lost a third straight league game for the first time in the Guy Novès era and it's about to get even worse.

On Saturday Toulouse lost a third straight league game for the first time in the Guy Novès era and things are going to get worse.

There was reason for concern when Europe's most successful club went a second year without silverware last season, missing out on the Top 14 semi-finals for the first time in two decades.

But Toulouse were still just two years removed from back-to-back Top 14 titles, and three from lifting a record fourth Heineken Cup, maybe it was just a blip.

The start to this season, where Toulouse have barely scraped past Oyonnax at home, come away with nothing from two winnable away trips and then lost at home soil to Clermont, proves that the problems have not been resolved.

The two main issues during the recent decline have been a faltering set-piece and a crippling injury list.

The turnaround in the former has been stark. When Toulouse won the Bouclier de Brennus in 2012 they had the best scrum in France, if not Europe, and rode it all the way to the title.

Since then William Servat has made an uneven step into coaching the forwards, Daan Human has retired and Jean-Baptiste Poux has moved to Bordeaux-Bègles.

While neither prop was first choice by the end of their time with Toulouse, they offered reliability in the scrum that allowed Novès and his staff to rotate his front row stocks.

It's easy to blame everything on the scrum, but as the expression goes in France 'No scrum, no win' and that has certainly been the issue for Toulouse.

Census Johnston is as good as any tighthead in Europe at his best, but he's been worked into the ground because of a lack of a viable alternative, while also struggling to come to terms with the new scrum regulations.

On the loosehead side Gurthro Steenkamp began his Toulouse career as a dominant force both in the tight and around the park.

Now, when he's not twiddling his thumbs in the stands for South Africa, he's back in France struggling to make the matchday squad.

Schalk Ferreira had been the success story of the front row, coming in as a medical joker last season and blossoming, only to tear a muscle in his bicep in pre-season, but more on that later.

Which brings us to the problem of versatility, or 'polyvalence' as it's known in France.

Vasil Kakovin missed the whole of last season with a torn ACL, but despite being the club's best loosehead, Toulouse are trying to move him across to the right side of the scrum.

It's a similar problem with Cyril Baille, a hugely promising young loosehead who is now converting to hooker, and even ended up having to fill in at tighthead during a Heineken Cup quarter-final in Munster last year, his first-ever appearance in the role.

The mis-management of the front row has been a disaster that's been brewing for a while, and the signings of Neemia Tialata, who Bayonne fans were not sorry to see go, and 36-year-old Kisi Pulu, a great servant for Perpignan but clearly past his best, have not reversed the trend.

As a result, Toulouse are finding themselves dominated in both possession and territory on a regular basis, and while the All Blacks might be able to cope with minimal possession, not many teams survive without the ball.

The hope is that when Johnston, Kakovin and Steenkamp return, Toulouse will at least be able to call on a serviceable scrum, but the front row injuries are part of a wider malaise.

While the club president René Bouscatel this week denied that there is a deeper-rooted problem at Toulouse, the sheer number of injuries over the last two seasons is a real cause for concern.

At the moment, in addition to the front rowers, the club are without Louis Picamoles, Gillian Galan, Imanol Harinordoquy, Yacouba Camara, Vincent Clerc and Timoci Matanavou, while Thierry Dusautoir and Luke McAlister are among those to have missed multiple games through injury already this season.

It's a long list, and the concentration of props and number eights is a real problem, but the underlying issue is that there are constantly key players missing.

Dusautoir is an outstanding player and club captain, but he's started less than half Toulouse's games in each of the last five seasons.

McAlister, Maxime M̩dard, Clerc, Gr̩gory Lamboley, Yannick Nyanga, Florian Fritz, Yann David Рall have endured long-term absences in the last two seasons alone.

While some, like Fritz's motorcycle crash, are just bad luck, there has also been an unusually high number of ACL injuries and torn biceps.

That could be misfortune too, but after a while it's worth wondering if there is more to it. Toulouse took the step to overhaul their medical staff over the summer, but it doesn't seem to have solved the problem.

There are other issues, with the back-line functioning only intermittently, and a number of key players performing nowhere near their best, but until the set-piece and injury problems are resolved, those remain secondary concerns.

Saturday's loss at home to Clermont was entirely predictable, and while Novès probably made the right call to take the losing bonus point rather than chasing a draw, it's a sign of how far Toulouse have fallen.

The problem is that the club had quite a nice start to the season with three home games plus trips to La Rochelle and Brive.

So to currently sit ninth means the pressure is on. Next up are away trips to Racing Métro and Bayonne, and Toulouse will have to win one of them if they are to avoid dropping into the relegation spots.

There is too much talent for the club to follow Biarritz and Perpignan into ProD2, but the alarm bells are becoming deafening, and unless Toulouse can find their form soon, a place in the top six and the play-offs could be out of reach by Christmas.

The hope is that they can turn it around, because at their best Toulouse are still irresistible.

Sadly those moments tend to come around about once a month, and rarely last more than a half.

By Paul Eddison