Fading Toulon forced to start again

Date published: April 1 2017

A conversation this week with respected French television pundit Thomas Lombard ended on a note about money, and to be more specific, how now having millions of Euros is no longer enough to succeed in the Top 14.

Not when you are up against clubs backed by billions of Euros.

Toulon’s spending spree on top internationals at the start of the decade propelled them to a trio of European titles and one domestic trophy in three years. Yet even having made the Top 14 final last season, losing out to Racing 92, their outlook has changed.

Mourad Boudjellal’s fortune of €40 million is no longer enough to compete with Racing, owned by Jacky Lorenzetti whose total worth is about €1 billion, and Montpellier, who are owned by Mohad Altrad, worth €2 billion. Europe’s most successful big spenders are now being comprehensively outspent.

The model that has given Toulon so much success has died, something which both Boudjellal and Diego Dominguez, the coach sacked earlier in the season, have acknowledged in a stuttering season.

Without question the retirements of Carl Hayman and Ali Williams weakened a commanding pack, but too much time has passed to keep falling back on that excuse.

Toulon and Boudjellal’s mindset with the appointment of Fabien Galthié is to restart and rebuild.

Talk in France has been fairly persistent in recent years over the number of foreigners playing in the Top 14 – see Philippe Saint-André last week – but now with the appointment of Bernard Laporte as president of the FFR, there are the rumblings of more action to back up the conversation.

Boudjellal cannot buy his way to the title again, and reflecting on the outlay made to win those trophies like so many other owners in the Top 14 he has realised that the return, financially at the very least, has not made good business.

“The challenge of a mainly French team is more difficult, but if you win a title, it will be more virtuous,” were his thoughts earlier this week, not that virtue was a pressing dilemma in the past.

And while investing in a proper academy at Toulon to promote French talent can only be a good thing for the national team and for the league overall, the transition will be far from instantaneous.

Less than half of Sunday’s matchday 23 are French, with just four of that group aged 25 or under, including one starter in scrum-half Éric Escande.

To carry out a personnel overhaul, akin to the revolution at Saracens for example, requires multiple factors – environment, coaching staff, luck, talent – compared to the opening of a cheque book.

Those young players in position to take Toulon forward – hooker Anthony Étrillard, back-row Gregory Annetta, fly-half Anthony Balleau – are yet to receive the required minutes on the field to truly show if they are good enough.

And behind those obvious candidates the reserves of French talent available to Toulon falls short of adequate. Hugo Bonneval and Raphaël Lakafia will both arrive from Stade Français next season, but in order to create the “virtuous” French dominated side that Boudjellal has in mind, Toulon will need to start from the ground up.

Top young French talent, even unproven players with potential, in a parallel with the Barclays Premier League in England all come at a premium price.

Meaning for Boudjellal’s new vision to become reality Toulon will need to start from the roots. Whether he has the patience to see Toulon’s second phase through is also a fair question.

Should an investor look to purchase the club from Boudjellal, with the current owner having put in so much, there would surely be a temptation to close the book on a hugely successful period as Toulon owner.

Back in the present, the first side to win three straight European Cups are rightfully underdogs for Sunday’s quarter-final.

An upset is not out of the question against Clermont. But Toulon’s demise this season has been swift, and is no one-off. All making the road to Boudjellal’s patriotic vision, and back to the top, seem rather long.

by Ben Coles