Leinster fans – for one match at least – may not agree, but one of the great joys of European rugby this season has been the resurgence of Toulouse as a major force.
After years of playing like a punch-drunk heavyweight entering the final round of a title fight, Ugo Mola’s side have been a quick-witted, fleet-footed delight on their return to the top of European rugby’s fight card after a season in the second-tier Challenge Cup.
They’re moulded in a noticeably different image. Gone are the long-in-the-tooth warriors and overpriced faded imports that bolstered teams in the dying embers of the Guy Noves era. Their pack is still terrifyingly big, but it’s more mobile than it has been for years. Their backs are younger, faster, fearless, and at utterly at home with free-flowing unstructured rugby.
More than a few of the 59 tries they have scored in 18 outings are likely to make end-of-season highlights packages There is no great secret to the club’s renaissance. It’s the same thinking that once worked for English sides Leicester and Wasps; one that still works for Leinster and Munster.
It’s one Toulouse had pioneered and forgotten: a well-operated Homegrown Player policy.
They have not lost since September 29 – some 13 matches ago, their longest unbeaten run since 1995. They have lost just twice since the French season kicked off in August.
Imports Cheslin Kolbe and Jerome Kaino may be the headline names in the squad, but one fact is impossible to ignore: in 17 of Toulouse’s 18 outings so far this season, Mola – working with Régis Sonnes (a former Bandon resident), who was brought in after an internal bloodbath in 2017, and William Servat – has fielded a matchday 23 containing at least 10 players who have come through the club’s academy.
There were 13 academy-grown players in the side that notched up 49 points against the expensively assembled Stade Francais on December 1; the same number were in the squad that beat Wasps 24-16 in Coventry a week later; and there were 14 on the teamsheet when Toulouse came back from 17-3 down at halftime to draw 20-20 at Top 14 leaders Clermont.
This is above and beyond any requirements of the convoluted and increasingly strict player- quota system that this year obliges Top 14 teams to field an average of 14 French-qualified players in every matchday squad for domestic games.
It is a signal of the club’s turnaround that France coach Jacques Brunel has called up seven Toulouse players – Yoann Huget, Antoine Dupont, Maxime Médard, Dorian Aldegheri, Thomas Ramos, Julien Marchand and Romain N’Tamack – to his initial squad for the Six Nations.
Six of those seven learned their rugby in the club’s academy. Scrum-half Dupont is the sole incomer, having arrived from Castres in 2017.
In November 2017, only Huget and Dupont were seen in French colours.
But the club’s phoenix act has not been without pain. The overnight success of this season has been three years in the making.
It began amid scarcely concealed mistrust when Mola first arrived in 2015, and he needed a massive slice of good fortune to pull it off.
First, he fought to win over the dressing room. Then he faced into the backroom, as he struggled against the inertia of two decades of loyalty to the still-adored Noves, coach from 1993 until 2015.
For the better part of 22 years under Noves, Toulouse were the standard against which all clubs in Europe were measured. Most were found wanting .
Under him, Stade Toulousain won nine of their 19 domestic titles, and all four of their European crowns. They were runners-up twice in both competitions. For good measure, they also won the now-defunct French knockout cup, twice, to notch an impressive 15 trophies in 23 seasons.
Only Leinster – their opponents today with pole position in Pool One at stake – have won as many European titles, while Toulouse’s six final appearances has yet to be matched.
Former France international Mola was a surprise choice to take the reins in 2015, when Noves finally left to take charge of France, several years later than he probably should.
An impressive season in charge of then-ProD2 side Albi after four years coaching the backs at Brive indicated a promising and burgeoning coaching talent – but Toulouse was a gigantic step up.
He inherited an ageing squad that was unquestioningly loyal to the old coach. Florian Fritz, Yoann Maestri, Thierry Dusautoir, Luke McAlister, Patricio Albacete, and Noves’ son-in-law Vincent Clerc were all great servants, but they were old school.
There were ways of doing things, then. Noves’ ways. And Mola struggled to make the changes necessary, even with the support of new sporting director Fabien Pelous.
All of Noves’ playing lieutenants – along with former president Rene Bouscatel, who had given Noves the hotseat a year after taking charge – have now left. Their departures gave Mola the chance to scout the club’s academy for players to make his mark.
But Mola still needed a massive slice of fortune. After two years in which they just about held their own in France and Europe, the cracks grew too big as Toulouse finished the 2016/17 Top 14 season in 12th, to miss out on top-flight European rugby for the first and only time in their history.
At any other time, such a finish would have killed Mola’s tenure. But it coincided with more pressing problems. The club was desperate for an injection of cash. The €3 million it needed duly arrived, though it cost Bouscatel the president’s chair. Mola survived, in part because new president, Didier Lacroix, was not prepared to pay his severance package.
This was the break he needed. A new president; a new management structure; a worrying financial hole filled – and, though he survived by the skin of his teeth, Mola had the breathing space to build a new Toulouse, just like the old one fans remembered, rather than the one they’d put up with for several years.
A first tranche of former academy players – including Cyril Baille, François Cros, Aldegheri, Ramos and Rodrigue Neti – had become regular starters. But the plan bore fruit when they were joined by N’Tamack Jr, Florian Verhaeghe, Peato Mauvaka, Alexandre Manukula, Selevasio Tolofua, Matthis Lebel and Lucas Tauzin.
Mola’s young guns turned 12th in 2016/17 into third in 2017/18. They are the foundations on which he has rebuilt French-inspired Toulouse flair that has had Champions Cup watchers purring with delight this season.
These are the players – and there are more to come, including perhaps another N’Tamack, a Brennan, a Lacroix, and a Castaignede – shaping the club’s future. They have all bought into the Mola-Sonnes-Servat style. Because it’s all most of them know.
Although the ghost of Noves past still haunts Toulouse corridors, this is Mola’s dynasty.