By Gavin Mortimer
Here’s a stat to chew on. Five clubs in the Top 14 this season have failed to score points in a match, the clubs in question being Bayonne (55-0 vs Clermont); Toulouse (25-0 vs Montpellier); Castres (34-0 vs Brive); Biarritz (39-0 vs Castres) and Toulon (23-0 vs Stade Francais).
In contrast, no club in the Rabo 12 has finished pointless this season and only one – Newcastle – has failed to trouble the scorers in the Aviva Premiership.
The common thread running through all five defeats is they were on the road, but what’s most extraordinary is that three of the teams humiliated away from home are currently in the top six of the Top 14 – Toulon, Castres and Toulouse.
Can you imagine Saracens or Leinster, Munster or Leicester failing to register a point in a league match? It’s unthinkable. Yet a team as illustrious as Toulouse, a record four-time winner of the Heineken Cup, didn’t manage to slot so much as a penalty in Montpellier, while on Saturday an abject Toulon side slumped to a 23-0 defeat to Stade Francais in Paris. In fairness to the reigning European champions they should have mustered six points but Frederic Michalak missed a couple of sitters on a miserable day for the fly-half. As Bernard Laporte said to reporters: “If I told you that Fred had had a good match, I’d be lying.”
Still, at least Toulon have won once on their travels in the French championship this season, a feat that has so far eluded Toulouse, Oyonnax, Brive and Bayonne. (After nine rounds of the Aviva Premiership, only Worcester have yet to pick up a win on the road.)
It says something about Toulouse’s mindset that nearly four months into the season they haven’t managed to win away but they are unbeaten at home – as are Castres, Toulon, Clermont, Stade Francais and Grenoble.
This mindset is unique to France, and it’s something I discussed with Philippe Saint-Andre a few years ago when he was coaching Sale Sharks. Having begun his coaching career at Gloucester in 1998, Saint-Andre had returned to England after a short spell in charge of Bourgoin, so he was well-placed to comment on the contrasting approach. “Even in the professional era there is still a ‘win at home, lose away’ mentality in French rugby,” explained Saint-Andre of his time in Bourgoin. “When I was there about 60 per cent of the squad came from Bourgoin. At home the players were playing in front of their friends and family. They knew most of the spectators and knew they were playing for the honour of Bourgoin. It was as if they were ready to die for the town.”
The French call this l’esprit de clocher (literally, ‘the spirit of the bell tower’), meaning that it is the duty of anyone born within the sound of their town’s church bells to uphold its glory. As the former England wing Dan Luger said a few years ago, not long after he’d arrived at Perpignan: “One of the first things that struck me [was] the importance that they attach to defending your ground…a home defeat soon becomes a local tragedy. The corollary is that losing away is accepted too easily.”
The fact that many clubs in the Top 14 are now full of foreigners is irrelevant. Towns such as Toulon, Castres and Clermont are tight-knit communities where the fortunes of the rugby club dominate conversations in the cafes and bistros. Players, be they French or foreign, live among the locals and they can’t pop down to the shops without running into a wide-eyed supporter.
Toulon’s players will soon be forgiven for their abject display in Paris on Saturday, as they were last season when they were thrashed 41-0 away at Bordeaux. And a defeat away in Exeter in the Heineken Cup wouldn’t be the end of the world. But were they to lose at home to Montpellier on December 21, in the Mediterranean local derby…
The Toulon faithful might well escort the squad to the top of the bell tower and invite them to take a jump.