RC TOULONNAIS is more than just a rugby club and when the team launch their defence of the Heineken Cup on Sunday in a stadium few can match for intensity and unbridled aggression over 300 years of history will be coming at Glasgow.
The ‘foreign’ names of Wilkinson, Botha, Fernandez Lobbe, Giteau, Masoe and Rossouw trip off the tongue as a ‘Who’s Who’ of world rugby and will be what most concerns Glasgow Warriors head coach Gregor Townsend, as he seeks a way to make life uncomfortable for the hosts. But life has been uncomfortable for the denizens of Toulon for a long, long time, and it is rugby that is now providing its salvation.
This week’s news that a National Front candidate made it through the first round of voting in Brignoles, a nearby constituency, provides an inkling into the turmoil that has ravaged this city of 165,000 people. Situated on the Mediterranean coast between Marseille to the west and St Tropez to the east, it is a military city, one of two homes to France’s navy, the other being Brest in Normandy, and so as well as developing like many towns and cities in the south around agriculture, and strong, hard-working men of the land, hence the popularity of rugby, the large number of military men of the sea has contributed to Toulon’s reputation for strength.
But it has a uniqueness that is not altogether comfortable for the rest of the country. In 1720 it lost half of its population to the Black Plague, and 70 years later its people sided with the British troops following the French Revolution of 1790 and invited national contempt by welcoming the arrival of the British fleet into Toulon.
The British were expelled by a young captain, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Toulon punished by losing its area capital status and being re-named Port-la-Montagne. In the 19th century the city was blockaded by Horatio Nelson, and then in the Second World War French ships were sabotaged to make them useless after capture by the Germans in 1942, following which the Allied troops bombed much of the city and proud port to ruins.
More recently, Toulon became famous as home to the ‘Front National’ (FN), when the people elected Jean-Marie le Chevalier its mayor in 1995, before throwing him out six years later, as it struggled with a large immigrant population, corruption, bankruptcy and unemployment caused by the decline of ship-building – something they share with this weekend’s opponents.
A rocky past and present then, and it is against that backdrop that rugby has risen to become the area’s great driving force for good, the team a totem behind which the people can unite and show their passions, their independence, differences and yet desire to prove to the rest of France that they are leaders and proud French citizens, rather than a disenfranchised rabble of treacherous people.
The simplest way to achieve that in a genuine sporting country is through teams, and in this part of France through ‘le quinze’. The great irony is that in flexing the Toulon muscle, self-made local millionaire Mourad Boudjellal has turned to an army of foreigners to do it. He is French, born of Algerian immigrants, and a fiercely passionate Toulonnais who built a successful business in comic books.
He has used his money to create an almost fairytale team of rugby heroes. Toulon are now compared with Real Madrid, termed the ‘Galacticos’ of rugby, and draw on star players from eight different countries, notably the current world top five of New Zealand (5), South Africa (5), England (4), Australia (2) and France (17). Jonny Wilkinson is rumoured to be earning nearly £1m a season and Toulon’s entire playing budget estimated to be around the £20m mark – three or four times what the elite British and Irish teams spend.
They emerged again from France’s second division in 2008, just staved off relegation, and have since finished second in the French Top 14 and Europe’s second-tier Challenge Cup twice, before claiming the Heineken Cup last year with a dramatic 16-15 final win over Clermont that produced enough tears from players, coaches, Boudjellal and the supporters to flood the city.
Toulon have not won the French championship since 1992, however. As welcomed as the European crown was, there is a belief in the streets and cafes that it is only when they secure the ‘Bouclier de Brennus’ – a massive shield lifted by the league champions – that Toulon will have claimed its own, respected place, in sport and society, in France.
Sebastien Tillous-Borde is one of the few French regulars in the side but, like every player, he faces competition from the southern hemisphere, now in the shape of ex-Bath and Springbok scrum-half Michael Claasens.
Asked this week which he felt would mean more to Toulon to win this season, the Heineken Cup or the Top 14, Tillous-Borde said: “I do not know. It is a difficult choice.
“Last year, we had the opportunity to earn both and, fortunately, we did win one. I say fortunately because that makes us even hungrier. We want to defend the European Cup but it’s been two years now that we’ve been close to winning the [Top 14] shield, and we have failed in the last match each time.
“Among the players, I think both cups mean a lot. The foreign players may look more for the European Cup, although they want to win the Brennus, but our fans want more the Brennus. They ask us to win the shield especially now since we already have won the Heineken Cup. If there was a choice, they would vote 90 per cent for the Brennus.”
It would, however, be dangerous for Glasgow, and fellow pool opponents Cardiff and Exeter to read into that that Toulon have reverted to French type, and are relegating the Heineken Cup to also-ran status, for the reason that Tillous-Borde explained – it means more to the foreign legion to be viewed by the best in world rugby as European champions than merely the best in France.
There is also new levels of expectation in the docklands. The Toulon players are used to that. Former Scotland winger Rory Lamont was one of their early foreign internationals, and worked closely with All Black skipper Tana Umaga, and he testifies to the incredible backing the players receive, on the pitch and in the city streets, but how that can, occasionally – they are on a run of 16 home wins – work against the home side.
“I have never come across an atmosphere like it anywhere else in club rugby,” he told The Scotsman. “The fans are incredibly vocal and passionate. I’d say that it was at the same level that you get with the Old Firm football in Glasgow. The rugby is that ingrained in the local people and means so much to them. It is a way of life.
“It’s great to have that support behind you, but there is also the potential for it to work in Glasgow’s favour. I remember when teams got in the ascendency against us early on, the French supporters turned on us quickly and let you know the performance was not good enough. In my second season there we were going for the play-offs and were heavily beaten away to Montpellier, and we went across at the end to thank the large number of fans who’d travelled to support us and were met with tons of swearing, plenty hand gestures and spitting.
“It is an intimidating place, with a very gladiatorial feel, but if Glasgow can start well it’s funny how that passion can turn around and the Toulon players will feel glad of the big fence around the pitch!”
The common view in France is that Toulon have been handed the easiest pool, the word ‘easy’ actually being used by some commentators who have stated that Toulon should win every game with bonus points and ensure a home quarter-final.
Tillous-Borde agrees that that is the target, but insists that the view inside the camp is not so complacent.
“Everyone says it is weaker than the other pools,” he acknowledged, “and if you look at the players, maybe they are less celebrated than in other pools, but Glasgow is a tough start. Exeter is not a bad team and Cardiff have performed well in the European Cup over the years so they have experience.
“We’ll do as we did last year and just take it match by match. That is the way if you want to reach the quarter-finals, but we know that it is important to try to win a quarter-final at home if we want to do well.”
They will be missing Springbok wing Bryan Habana to injury and look likely to kick off without England and Lions prop Andrew Sheridan, who is nursing a damaged shoulder, so may share loosehead duties between Emmanuel Felsina and Xavier Chiocci as they seek to bulldoze Glasgow into submission up front.
Wilkinson has been struggling for the starting berth, with the quicker, more elusive runner Matt Giteau starting at fly-half, and though top of the league on points difference, the team has stuttered through their early games with five wins from nine. The star-studded backs have, at times, seemed like an after-thought in the game-plan.
Coach Bernard Laporte has not changed much from the largely conservative approach he employed with the French national side, and the Toulonnais like it. They would like nothing better than to see their men destroy the Scots in a pulsating, physical forward battle, with as much discomfort as possible, and then, if needed, finish them off with some entertaining back play.
That is a common French way and, having spent the past decade striving to bring sparkle to the rough diamond of the Cote D’Azur, it is now the mode d’emploi for a club and a city seeking to embolden its reputation as a people to be admired across its own nation.