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Money well spent - How Toulon evolved from rich mercenaries to trophy-addicted galacticos

The team from the south of France have evolved dramatically over the last few years.

Toulon's Heineken Cup win in 2013 signalled their arrival as Europe's elite.
Toulon's Heineken Cup win in 2013 signalled their arrival as Europe's elite.
Image: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

WHEN MOURAD BOUDJELLAL became the president of Toulon back in 2006, he made big promises to restore the team to their former glory.

They had won Top 14 titles in 1987 and 1992 but when the eccentric comic book mogul assumed control of the club in the mid-naughties, they were languishing in the ProD2.

Within a few months, they were relevant if not well-rounded.

Today, Toulon is a paradise for the world’s best but at the start of the Mourad revolution it was more of a retirement community for former greats.

Tana Umaga, George Gregan and Andrew Mehrtens were all flashy signings but the construction was hollow at its core, as the trio had a combined age of 102 when they arrived in Toulon.

Promotion followed but in their first season in the Top 14, 2008/2009, they finished a disappointing ninth as Boudjellal made the ill-advised decision to allow Umaga to coach the team.

FRANCE UMAGA Umaga's time as Toulon head coach saw the team's growth stagnate. Source: Associated Press

The following year he made an equally puzzling decision – hiring Philippe Saint-Andre. PSA’s first season also coincided with a change in Toulon’s transfer policy.

Instead of focusing on past-their-prime veterans, Boudjellal was willing to use his own money to secure current stars. Sir Jonny, Sonny Bill Williams and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe all joined the team in 2009 and unsurprisingly, Toulon were far more competitive.

They shouldn’t be criticised too harshly for losing to Clermont in that year’s Top 14 semi-final but PSA’s tenure as Toulon coach should be remembered for taking a team with Wilkinson, SBW and Fernandez Lobbe to the Challenge Cup final… and losing to the Cardiff Blues.

That year showed promise but Toulon were still a mix of big-money signings and various middle-tier players like backs Tom May and Matt Henjak.

Funnily, Boudjellal and Racing Metro owner Jacky Lorenzetti took over their respective clubs around the same time but the Parisians are still stuck in phase one.

And Toulon’s performances during PSA’s reign were actually very reminiscent of Racing Metro today – a great out-half and some stellar supporting players who occasionally deliver big performances… but are also prone to lapses in concentration where they lose to inferior teams.

France Rugby Wcup PSA couldn't deliver success even with Sonny Bill Williams and Jonny Wilkinson. Source: Claude Paris

PSA’s second season was even worse as the team finished eight and missed out on Heineken Cup qualification. Luckily for everyone involved, Saint-Andre got promoted (!) to the French job and Boudjellal made an excellent choice in replacing him.

He learned from his Umaga mistake and chose Bernard Laporte, who had won four Six Nations crowns with France. But just as important as his coaching success was his temperament.

Like Boudjellal, Laporte is known to be a little nutty, so was probably the perfect person to deal with his owner’s regular outbursts and tantrums. The club’s dealings in the transfer market continued to get better that year too – Steffon Armitage, Matt Giteau and Mathieu Bastareaud all arrived at the same time as Laporte.

Anyone can take a mountain of cash and spray it around – Boudjellal did that initally at Toulon – but their player selection has changed for the better over the years.

Matt Giteau supported by Mathieu Bastareaud Bastareaud and Giteau arrived in Toulon at the same time and formed a formidable centre partnership. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Even securing the above trio showed an ability to identify different players in different stages of their careers and bring them to the south of France. You had a former international who many thought was past his best and two players who had yet to fulfil their potential.

Success was almost instant. Laporte guided the side to two finals – the Challenge Cup and the Top 14 – and although they lost both, their display in losing to Toulouse in the league final showed real growth.

They lost 18-12 and were very unlucky not to grab a late try to win the game. The Toulon hierarchy have made more additions and tweaks since that final and it has resulted in two European Cups and a Top 14 victory.

The model Boudjellal started with – restore my hometown team to glory by bringing the best players in the world to play here – has evolved to the extent that the club now makes a great deal of money as well as spending it.

There have been blips – Toulon went full-Clermont in losing to an obviously inferior Castres team in the French league final in 2013 – but the French frontrunners are currently in a strong position to win their second consecutive double.

France Rugby Even Bastareaud can't believe Toulon lost to Castres in the 2013 Top 14 final. Source: Jacques Brinon

They don’t even have the biggest or even second biggest budget in the Top 14, which proves that while cash helps, it doesn’t mean everything. 

If money guaranteed success then Clermont and Racing Metro would be kings instead of a duo of perennial underachievers who have won just one trophy between them in the last five seasons.

The interesting thing is whether Toulon will still be as effective when Laporte departs and is replaced by Diego Dominguez in 2016. Of course, before then the former French coach will look to add two more European Cups and two more Top 14 titles to Boudjellal’s trophy cabinet.

It hasn’t just been a simple case of opening the chequebook for Toulon. Over the last decade there was a lot of wasted money on players and coaches and also a great deal learned.

Somewhere along the way, Toulon’s brain trust got a good understanding of how to mould mercenaries into a team of galacticos who are just as concerned with winning as collecting a paycheck.

And club rugby hasn’t been the same since.

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