By Gavin Mortimer
IF THERE’S one man who knows how Arsene Wenger is feeling this week it’s Toulouse coach Guy Noves.
Like the Arsenal manager, Noves ended Saturday afternoon with a furrowed brow and a stinging criticism of a referee. For Anthony Taylor, the official who didn’t do Arsenal many favours on Saturday in their 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa, for Toulouse read Laurent Cardona, the referee who Noves claimed had a shocker as they went down 31-25 to Bordeaux-Begles. So incensed was Noves that in the bowels of the Stade Chaban-Delmas on Saturday evening he opened his laptop and took journalists through some of Cardona’s alleged clangers.
Once he’d calmed down Noves subsequently telephoned Cardona (the same referee who sent off Sergio Parisse last season for bad language) and the Toulouse boss said later: “Matters have been talked through. All went very well…we agreed on everything.”
So diplomacy – not to mention common sense – reigns. Noves has been around long enough to know that a coach will never win out over a referee no matter how justified his criticism may be. But Noves, a thoughtful and dignified man, will also know that deep down the anger he felt on Saturday was as much aimed at his own team than at Monsieur Cardona.
Noves selected a monstrous pack for the season’s opener, one in which Louis Picamoles, the massive France No8, was shunted to the blind side to make way for Iosefa Tekori, the 123 kg Samoan lock. Is this what Toulouse have come to? A club that gave us, among others, Jean-Pierre Rives, Denis Charvet and Emile Ntamack, reduced to trying to bludgeon the opposition into submission? That it failed – thanks to Bordeaux’s courageous second-half defence (they made 31 tackles compared to Toulouse’s 9) – only emphasizes the fall from grace of Toulouse.
Rugby being rugby, thankfully, there hasn’t been the hysterical reaction among Toulouse fans that there has among the Arsenal faithful to the woeful start to the new season. The French do love to blame referees for the ills of the world so for the moment it’s Cardona who’s copping the fury of the Toulouse fans. But the more honest among them will be seriously concerned about what’s going on at their club.
Over the summer Noves complained about the money lavished on players by the likes of Toulon and Racing Metro, forgetting that Toulouse’s budget this season of €35.4m is by far the biggest in the Top 14. The club has money to burn, but like Arsenal, they seem unable, or unwilling, to bring the right players to the club. Their two big summer signings were Jano Vermaak, the Bulls scrum-half, and All Black wing Hosea Gear, two decent players but not the influential decision-makers the club needs.
There are some great fly-halves in the Top 14 this season – Jonny Wilkinson and Jonny Sexton among them – but Lionel Beauxis is never going to be the man to bring back the glory days to Toulouse. Yet still Noves persists in picking a player long since discarded by his country. Similarly, there’s something not right when a loose forward of Yannick Nyanga’s considerable talents is consigned to the bench to make way for a veteran lock forward such as Tekori.
Noves has been in charge of Toulouse since 1993, three years longer than Wenger has had the reins at Arsenal. The pair have run out of ideas and have failed to keep pace with the huge changes in both their leagues over the last few years. They can blame referees as much as they like but they both should look closer to home to discover what’s going wrong at their clubs.