By Gavin Mortimer
IT IS, as they say, the business end of the season, with play-offs in both the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 this weekend. The difference being that in France the top two clubs at the end of the regular season can put their feet up and look on as the four clubs below battle it out for the right to meet them in the semi-final of France’s never-ending domestic season on May 24/25.
So while Clermont, who finished first, and Toulon, have a much-needed week off before the Heineken Cup final, it’s crunch time for their chasing quartet. On Saturday afternoon Castres (4th) host Montpellier (5th) at the Stade Pierre-Antoine , less than 24 hours after Racing Metro (6th) travel to Toulouse for their encounter.
Toulouse finished third in the Top 14 this season, at first glance a respectable enough showing, but scratch the surface and all is clearly not well at the Stade Ernest Wallon. For a club that won the Top 14 shield – the Bouclier de Brennus – in 2011 and 2012, Toulouse have been woefully off the pace this season.
They finished 11 points behind Clermont, an unacceptable margin for a club that has dominated European rugby for the past 17 years. Four times winners of the Heineken Cup, Toulouse have won seven domestic titles in the same period.
Toulouse could yet show some savvy as the season bubbles to a climax but there’s also the real possibility they could lose to Racing. The Parisians have made a habit this season of doing what most French clubs find impossible – winning on the road. Back in January they beat Toulon on the Cote d’Azur, a victory that has been followed with wins away at Biarritz and Montpellier. They also came within a whisker of ending Clermont’s four-year unbeaten home run, losing 13-12 despite outplaying their illustrious hosts for long periods.
A couple of seasons ago a trip to Toulouse would end in crushing defeat for Racing but there’s a sense in France that this Toulouse side is there for the taking. Beaten nine times in the Top 14 this season – including embarrassing defeats against Grenoble and Agen – Toulouse also failed to make the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup.
This shouldn’t be so. A quick browse through the squad shows the strength in depth of Toulouse: a pair of world-class players in the back-row in Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles; the inventive flair of Clermont Poitrenaud, Maxime Medard and Vincent Clerc out wide and at full-back; that brilliant former All Black Luke McAllister at ten, and a triumvirate of superb second-rowers in Patricio Albacete, Yoann Maestri and Romain Millo-Chluski. So what’s gone wrong?
For the answer to that question look at the coach. Now, there’s no question that Guy Noves is one of the most astute, successful not to mention respected coaches in professional European rugby. Trouble is, Noves is now in his 60th year, and has been at Toulouse since 1993. It’s too long. Like Arsene Wenger and his 17 years at Arsenal, Noves has run out of ideas, and the well of inspiration from which he used to water his sides is empty. The result? A Toulouse parched of panache that can no longer compete with Toulon or Clermont.
In addition, Noves – again like Wenger – seems to have lost his knack in the transfer department, despite the fact that Toulouse’s annual budget of €34,9m is the biggest in the Top 14 by nearly €10m (Clermont are second).Once he had an uncanny eye for spotting rough diamonds and polishing them up so they sparkled: think Trevor Brennan, Byron Kelleher and Finau Maka. But no more.
Noves is holding back Toulouse, as Wenger is Arsenal, but has anyone within their respective clubs the nerve to say such heresy? The Gunners appear content to be also-rans; perhaps the same mentality is now taking hold of Toulouse.