Steffon Armitage

Unlucky seven: Toulon's Steffon Armitage must have been close to an England call-up this summer

By Gavin Mortimer

IS THIS going to be the season when Toulon finally climb back to the summit of French rugby? The last time they were there was exactly twenty years ago when a side containing the likes of Aubin Hueber and Yann Delaigue defeated Biarritz 19-14 to win the Bouclier de Brennus. Many hard years followed that triumph until Mourad Boudjellal became president a few years ago and used his wealth to lift the club back to the top echelon of French rugby.

Since they won promotion to the Top 14 from Division Two in 2008 Toulon have been one of the stronger sides in the competition, although they’ve still failed to reach a final. This season they’re in with their best chance yet of recapturing those glory years. Already through to the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup (against Biarritz), Toulon are virtually guaranteed of finishing third in the Top 14, giving them a home draw in the play-offs on May 26, probably against either Montpellier or Racing Metro depending on how results pan out this weekend.

Toulon are of course a team of stars, the closest rugby has to Real Madrid’s famous Galácticos. Everyone’s there, from England’s Jonny Wilkinson and Simon Shaw to a pair of Boks in Joe van Niekerk and Bakkies Botha to one New Zealand great in Carl Hayman and one Australian legend in Matt Giteau. In Midi Olympique this week Toulon’s Director of Rugby – the former France coach Bernard Laporte – was asked what it was like being in charge of such an array of stars. “Stars,” he replied acidly. “I hate this expression…they are not stars, they are rugby players. They have a great talent but that’s all.”

Laporte took over the reins at Toulon last season from Philippe Saint-Andre when he was appointed coach of the French national side. What Laporte has done has bring a more pragmatic approach to Toulon, allowing them to win tight matches they once might have lost. Against the Cardiff Blues in the final of the 2010 European Challenge Cup Toulon threw away a 13-6 half-time lead, but this season they’ve closed out the tight games. Most recently they edged out Toulouse 25-22 in last week’s Top 14, a result that bodes well for the business end of the competition. Toulouse and Clermont have been runaway leaders of the Top 14 but are showing signs of fatigue as the long French season draws to a close.

Mind you, so is Jonny Wilkinson, who’s been uncharacteristically wayward in his goal-kicking of late. Asked if he was worried by the former England fly-half’s form Laporte laughed. “Jonny isn’t worried, and nor am I.”

Wilkinson’s actually been eclipsed this season at Toulon by one of his countryman, the former London Irish flanker Steffon Armitage who has been overlooked for England’s tour to South Africa. It’s a situation that bemuses Laporte. “He’s international class!” exclaims Laporte. “I struggle to understand why he’s been forgotten by the [England] selectors but so much the better for us!”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Mourad Boudjellal, who was recently gracious enough to admit he has his former coach to thank for the decision to sign the 26-year-old Armitage last summer. “Philippe Saint-Andre was really insistent that we recruit him. I wanted [James] Haskell but Philippe was like a dog with a bone. He wanted [Armitage] and no one else. Today I don’t regret that I listened to him.”