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How Toulouse rediscovered their groove to climb from the bottom back to the top

Toulouse are France’s most successful club but in 2017 they had an ageing squad and no direction, their turnaround a story of clever planning and brilliant recruitment.

Antoine Dupont has been at the heart of the Toulouse revival.
Antoine Dupont has been at the heart of the Toulouse revival.
Image: Manuel Blondeau/INPHO

THERE WAS TROUBLE in Paradise. The old chateau was decaying around the edges, weeds appearing on its lawns.

The groundskeeper was getting on a bit, 22 years having passed since he arrived with the freshness of a summer breeze. Now his ideas were stale. And it showed. Their visitor numbers had decreased; alternative attractions in Paris, Toulon and Clermont proving more popular.

The history books told us about the 19 French championships and four European Cups, how the groundskeeper – Guy Noves – had overseen 13 of those victories.

Now his team was underachieving. You looked around the place and read signs like ‘Don’t walk on the grass’ and ‘European Challenge Cup fixtures’. Noves was yesterday’s man, Toulouse yesterday’s attraction.

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Ugo Mola – Noves’ successor – was the one who changed things. He restored the pure joy of winning, not easily, not straight away, putting up firstly with the whinging of the old guard. “The suit was perhaps too big for him,” said the club’s Argentinean second-row, Patricio Albacete. “He hasn’t the shoulders to take on a squad like that.”

patricio-albacete Albacete was critical of Mola in 2017. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

This was May 2017; Toulouse had just finished 12th in the Top 14. Five years had passed since their last French title, seven since their previous European win. Munster beat them 41-16 that year in the Champions Cup quarters, the first time they’d reached that stage of the competition in three seasons, Munster stuffing them that year, too.

“Fortunately there are good blokes in this team, otherwise it would have exploded long ago,” said Albacete in an interview with L’Equipe. That summer Albacete was one of several ‘good blokes’ who were shown the door. The new coach also had a new president – Didier Lacroix coming in for Rene Rouscatel, who’d been in charge for a quarter of a century. All they needed now was a new team.

They’d get one, their rebuild beginning in Castres. Over there, there was this 20-year-old Mola had heard good things about, the recommendation coming from a backrower whose ankles ached trying to adjust to the kid’s twists and turns.

“What’s his name?” Lacroix asked.

“Antoine Dupont,” Mola replied.

“You could tell he had a special rugby IQ from the way he picked things up in training,” said former Scotland international Johnny Beattie of his then Castres team mate. “What they say about him in France now is ‘il pue de rugby’ — he stinks of rugby — the game is just so natural to him.”

Toulouse had discovered a new No9.

Next they’d discover a new winger as their shopping spree continued, the summer of ’17 being a buyer’s market. Off they went to South Africa, Mola and Lacroix, to hear Cheslin Kolbe’s story. “When I was a kid growing up at home, whenever I went to take a shower or to get something from the fridge in the kitchen I always used to run and make sure I sidestepped something,” Kolbe said.

keith-earls-with-cheslin-kolbe Kolbe takes on Keith Earls in Thomond Park. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

It could have been a story from The Waltons until we got to the second chapter. “Oh and you could be playing on the street,” Kolbe added, “and a gang war might break out or there was a shooting and that was when you just ran for your life; you didn’t want to be a victim. That’s where everything comes from, trying to avoid getting shot or that kind of thing.”

Life on a rugby pitch would be comparatively stress free, especially as the new signings combined to make an immediate impact, Toulouse rising from the relegation zone to finish third in 2017-18. “I’ve spent time with the club,” Ben Ryan, the former England and Fijian sevens coach said, “and they do not overtrain. This means that they know the type of player they want; with Cheslin, it was, let him play, don’t constrain him. The feel hasn’t been coached out of him.”

Richie Gray, the Scotland international then domiciled in Toulouse, was also noticing things.  “We have a number of young players coming through,” Gray said in 2017. “They do not have any fear and just want to go out and play. It makes it a great club to be at but it also involves a lot of hard work. The coaches leave no stone unturned.”

It showed in 2019. A first French title in seven years arrived, that European season ending in the Aviva with a semi-final defeat to Leinster. Still, they were on their way, Mola’s philosophy of picking ‘players who were audacious’ leading to Romain Ntamack being handed the controls as a teenager. 

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romain-ntamack Romain Ntamack in Twickenham yesterday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

If their outhalf was exhilarating but imperfect then the checklist surrounding Cyril Baille’s name had every box ticked. In the scrum, he was able to trouble any tight-head; in the loose Baille was capable of troubling any player, period – a modern-day superprop.

Next to him, Julien Marchand also had electrifying skill around the park; albeit an occasional attack of the yips at the lineout. Marchand is suspended for today’s final and will be missed.

Francois Cros won’t be. Industrious, tough, brilliant at the breakdown, he’ll add stardust to their pack; the Arnolds from Australia, Richie and Rory, offering street smarts in the engine room and that’s before we get to 37-year-old Jerome Kaino, twice a World Cup winner with the All Blacks. “He’s a leader,” Mola says, “and when you’ve so many young players, you need that guidance.

“Without that kind of person, sometimes they can get lost. Jerome maps things out for them; they follow.”

Today that map takes them to Twickenham and a date with La Rochelle where victory will result in a request going to the local tailor for a fifth star to be stitched into their jerseys.

No team has ever won more than four but by 7pm this evening, the seamstress will be waiting by the phone for a fresh order.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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