The Fall of French Giants Toulouse

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Christopher Tolofua of Toulouse fights with Craig Ronaldson of Connacht during the European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 2 match between Connacht Rugby and Stade Toulousain at the Sportsground in Galway, Ireland on October 15, 2016 (Photo by Andrew Surma/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

French giants Toulouse’s defeat away to Connacht in the first round of the European Champions Cup shouldn’t have come as a surprise to many. The result in Galway is a measure of how much rugby’s landscape has changed. Not only have Connacht emerged as a team that can, and have, won trophies, but their style is the new normal. All three major European leagues were won by teams playing at high tempo and with forwards that can play ball. Connacht is the most extreme example, but Saracens and Racing 92 both play fast, wide games too.

Toulouse’s game plan could not be further from this. Out thought, out run, outskilled at the Sportsground, the French giants tried to huff and puff their way up the middle. It’s sad to see the once most attractive and still most successful team in Europe struggle like this.

Toulouse used to be brilliant

Since the advent of professional rugby, no team has been more consistently successful than Toulouse. Seven Top 14 titles and four Heineken Cup wins all under the same coach, Guy Noves. Noves, an old school France winger from the 70s, coached the team to play like the old French teams. Tough, occasionally outright violent, forward play and backs not afraid to try anything. To an outsider, some of their play would come across as brain dead, but it won far more games than it lost.

French Core

Like most great teams, Toulouse found themselves bulk suppliers to the national team. in 2010, when the game was already well and truly global, their cup final squad featured 17 France internationals. William Servat and Jean-Baptiste Poux were mainstays of the France front row for a decade. French cap record holder Fabien Pelous was captain a then record 42 times. The front five these names featured in was consistently the smartest and most skilled in Europe.

More recently, a great trio of backrow forwards emerged. Thierry Dusautoir went on to break Pelous’ record for games as captain of his country. Combine that with a World Player of the year award and man of the match in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, and it’s hard to argue he’s been a phenomenal player. His partner in crime for much of his career was Yannick Nyanga. Nyanga, a dynamic runner and link player, played the perfect foil to Dusautoir’s relentless tackling and breakdown work. Snuggled between the two was the perfect eight–54 times capped Louis Picamoles.

French Flair

While the forward pack was always tremendous, the real stars came behind the scrum. in Jean-Baptiste Elissalde, Toulouse had the archetypal “petit-general”. A metronomic kicker with a long passing game and an eye for a gap. Outside him was the mercurial Freddie Michalak. On his best days, Michalak was world class and could do almost anything.

In the centre, Yannick Jauzion proved to be ahead of his time. Tall, powerful but with wonderful hands. Jauzion played with his head up, making space for the guys outside him. This was important, because those guys outside him were Vincent Clerc and Clement Poitrenaud. Clerc, for a period, was the finest winger in the world. His try that denied Ireland the Grand Slam in 2007 came at his peak, a scything line beating five defenders in 15 metres.

Poitrenaud was the ‘Rolls Royce’ of fullbacks. He had an eye for the try line and delicate hands but it was his sidestep that made him irresistible. As a unit, the backline was stacked with was stacked with too many weapons not to win silverware.

What changed?

Since their last Top 14 title, four years ago, Toulouse have been overtaken by several big spending sides. Toulon, Racing 92 and Montpellier have seen an influx of private money, while Clermont Auvergne have broken their finals duck. As of last season, Toulouse were still the top spending side in France though. Budget isn’t the issue, but what has changed is the number of options talented players have in France.

In the Guy Noves era, Toulouse hoovered up the outstanding French talent. Now there are four or five potential Champions Cup winning sides in France trying to outbid each other for the top talent. Combined with a golden generation of players reaching their late 30s Toulouse are struggling to maintain their previously high standards.

The approach is wrong

While the landscape of European rugby has changed and Toulouse can’t be expected to be as dominant as before, they still could be doing better. One thing immediately noticed when you watch them play is how wide they are.

Toulouse players are visibly less fit than almost every other team. Louis Picamoles is now “in the best shape” of his life, since moving to Northampton over the summer.  He’s clearly lost a lot of weight, which can’t just be down to a longer pre-season. There’s strategy behind having heavier players. A typical Top14 game is dominated by scrums, and has low ball in play time. Having the heaviest forward pack will make it easier to win.

The problem with a heavy team though, is good teams work round them. Connacht played at such a high pace last weekend that Toulouse couldn’t keep up. Their front five weighed a combined 625kg. Players that heavy simply can’t put in the tackle counts needed. Connacht’s front five came in at 570kg, so they had 10kg a man less to carry round the field. Connacht aren’t unique either, as all the best teams play this high-speed game these days.

There is still hope

Toulouse still have talented players, they just need to get the most out of them. In Gael Fickou, Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard, they have backs with the talents of the golden era. Up front, Yacouba Camara could be the next Dusautoir, and Yoann Maestri is an excellent second row.

French Giants Toulouse have to fix their recruitment, and start playing like they used to though.

“Main Photo Credit”

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