Toulon have done the double this season, but can the star-studded side continue their success without Jonny Wilkinson?
THE QUESTION is already being asked in the French press: how long will Toulon’s dominance of European rugby last? One of their former stars Eric Champ, a formidable flanker for France in the 1980s, described the Mediterranean club as “invincible” in the wake of their 18-10 defeat of Castres in Saturday’s Top 14 final.
That victory – their first domestic title in 22 years – made Toulon only the second French club in history to win a domestic and European double. Toulouse did it in 1996, although it was a Heineken Cup without England after their clubs had boycotted the inaugural season. Without wishing to take anything away from Toulouse, beating Farul Constanta of Romania, Treviso, Swansea and Cardiff is hardly the same as Toulon’s victories this season over Cardiff Blues, Exeter, Glasgow, Leinster, Munster and Saracens. In addition, Toulon are the only the third club to win back-to-back Heineken titles, emulating Leicester and Leinster.
Toulon’s double triumph bears comparison with what the Tigers achieved in winning European and domestic crowns in 2001 (and again in 2002), and Wasps’ glory season of 2004 when the Londoners did the double.
Of those two English clubs it’s the fate of Wasps that might serve as a warning to Toulon. Though they never managed another double, Wasps won their second Heineken title in 2007 and the following season lifted the Premiership trophy in what was Lawrence Dallaglio’s final act as a player.
Wasps have never been the same club since Dallaglio retired. Like Jonny Wilkinson, the England No 8 was one of those rare rugby figures capable of inspiring team-mates and intimidating opponents by his mere presence.
Two more contrasting characters you couldn’t have wished to meet: Dallaglio the extrovert, as comfortable in the limelight as in the back row, and Wilkinson the introvert who dodged the celebrity circuit as if it were an opposition flanker. Yet in their different ways the pair symbolised what their clubs were about.
When Dallaglio retired Wasps appointed Raphael Ibanez as captain, but an injury early on in the 2008-09 season forced the charismatic Frenchman to follow Dallaglio into retirement.
Wasps still had a side oozing great talent and strong characters, but with no Dallaglio to keep egos in check cracks began to appear in the squad. Danny Cipriani and Josh Lewsey came to blows on the training ground and Wasps finished the season in seventh spot. In fact, since the end of the Dallaglio era Wasps have never finished in the top four of the Premiership. Could something similar happen to Toulon?
They’ve made several big signings to compensate for the loss of Wilkinson, world-class players such as Leigh Halfpenny and James O’Connor, but their focus will be divided between club and country in what is a World Cup year next season.
And anyway a big name is no guarantee of success. Toulon know that from Victor Matfield and Gethin Jenkins. It’s commitment as much as quality, but also something that no one can ever predict – chemistry. Who could have guessed that Wilkinson, Giteau, Bastareaud, Botha and Hayman would bond as they did, mates as well as team-mates.
Wasps didn’t become a bad team overnight in 2008, and nor will Toulon next season, but the retirement of Wilkinson will give hope to their rivals. ‘Sir Jonny’ won Toulon the Bouclier de Brennus on Saturday but has he lost them their fear factor?