There is another Englishman who’s time at Toulon is drawing to a close. Like Jonny Wilkinson, Steve Walsh arrived on the Cote d’Azur in 2009, and like the soon-to-be retired fly-half, he’s enjoyed a fruitful five years transforming Toulon into arguably Europe’s most dominant team.
Walsh is Toulon’s highly-respected head of athletic performance, a straight-talking Lancastrian whose innovation and energy were seen first in rugby league with Wigan and Leeds Rhinos, and then at Sale Sharks. When Walsh was headhunted by Philippe Saint-Andre in 2009 – then the director of rugby at Toulon – Walsh was given carte blanche to design the gym he wanted installed at the club’s training ground. What Walsh had constructed was light years ahead of other French clubs’ fitness facilities. There was the usual paraphernalia of free weights and cardiovascular machines, but there was also a five-lane 30m running track of double thickness for plyometrics, four six-metre ropes hanging from the ceiling and two ominous-looking contraptions for hamstrings and gluteals, their design modelled on machines used in the training of East European gymnasts.
Walsh is off to London Irish next season, to hopefully help turnaround the fortunes of the struggling Premiership club, but before then he must nurse the Toulon squad through a daunting end to the season. Last Friday the reigning European champions muscled their way past Racing Metro in the semi-final of the Top 14; it wasn’t pretty but it was physical and it was also in Lille, 1000km north of Toulon.
Next on the itinerary is a trip to Cardiff, to defend their Heineken Cup crown against Saracens on Saturday, and then seven days later it’s off to Paris to face Castres in a re-run of last year’s Top 14 final.
So much travelling, so little time for recuperation, Walsh’s savoir-faire is certainly being tested in what time he has left at Toulon.
Last weekend was one of rest for Toulon before the players reconvened on Monday for what Walsh describes as a “low-key” weights session. That was also the order of the day on Tuesday and Wednesday will be a day off – as it always is for the players – before the squad flies to Cardiff on Thursday after a short session in the morning.
Win or lose in Cardiff, Toulon will remain in Wales until Tuesday before heading to Paris to start their preparations for the Top 14 final, a title they last won in 1992. “I’ve arranged with Adam Beard, Wales’ Head of Physical Performance, to use their Cryotherapy chamber,” explains Walsh. The deep freeze treatment, which speeds up recovery by flushing lactic acid out of the system, is one of the few changes made by Walsh to the club’s normal routine. “I’ve pretty much kept everything in place so the players feel comfortable with the regime…the expression I use is ‘know your cattle’ and I know where to make the little improvements. For those players who have played at the highest level, who are in their 30s and are still world class, they know what it’s about and what works for them.”
In effect, Toulon go on tour when they fly north to Cardiff on Thursday. The players will be together until Sunday June 1st when, if all goes according to plan, they will return to Toulon carrying two trophies, a feat only achieved by one other French club, Toulouse in 1996.
For Walsh the ‘tour’ will be his last opportunity to spend time with Toulon’s ‘galacticos’, the breathtaking array of talent assembled by the club over the last five years. “We don’t have any show ponies here,” says Walsh. “Everyone’s prepared to be a grinder. The calibre of player now is better than when I first arrived in 2009.”
Walsh – and this is not a man given to hyperbole – feels privileged to have spent five years in the company of some of the world’s top players. “I’ve worked in rugby league but at Toulon I’ve come across the toughest blokes I’ve ever seen, “ he says. “Players like Bakkies Botha, Jonny Wilkinson and Carl Hayman are unbelievable. They rock up to games, and their bodies may be in bits, but they’re so tough mentally. And it’s the mind that controls the body.”
One man who won’t be seen in either Cardiff or Paris is Andrew Sheridan. The Toulon prop is still recovering from a neck operation – unsure at this stage if he’ll be able to resume his career – but Walsh says that hasn’t stopped him showing off in the gym. “Sheridan” replies Walsh emphatically, when asked who can lift the most weights in the club. “He’s squatting 240kgs and doing full-range dips with 65 kgs [of weight on his back].” Sheridan is also showing a fair turn of pace in one of Walsh’s favourite challenges, the five minute run, posting a distance of 1400 metres before the clock runs down.
The club record for the five minute run belongs to Wilkinson, who scampered 1600 metres last season. “He’s an exceptional endurance athlete in his own right,” says Walsh of Wilkinson.” One of those players who doesn’t become a coward when he’s tired. He thrives on the challenge of fatigue.”
Walsh reckons Wilkinson has got the timing of his retirement spot on, even though he could still put most players ten years his junior to shame in the gym. “He’s creaking a little bit now, so it probably is time to go,” says Walsh. “I’ve always said to players, ‘it’s better to go out on top, then hang on too long’. Jonny is going out at the top.”
So is Walsh, though in his case he’s relocating and not retiring – and he’s taking his stopwatch with him. Bon courage, London Irish.