Could Toulouse’s new generation transform the fortunes of France? Gavin Mortimer talks to a triple threat of players
Toulouse trio Antoine Dupont, Romain Ntamack and Thomas Ramos
Back in 2012, I had the misfortune to be present at the Top 14 final. It was a dire spectacle, one of the worst games of rugby that I can remember. Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon lost to Toulouse 18-12 in a match devoid of tries, invention or ambition. The victors owed their success to the boot of All Black Luke McAlister but one left the Stade de France wondering how a Toulouse team of such scintillating talent could produce 80 minutes of mind-numbing tedium.
We didn’t know it at the time but that Top 14 title – Toulouse’s third in five seasons – would bring down the curtain on their era of extraordinary success. As well as the domestic domination (they also won six titles between 1994 and 2001), the club from the deep south of France were crowned European champions on four occasions and for two decades their players formed the backbone of les Bleus.
Within five years of that 2012 triumph, Toulouse finished the season one place above the relegation zone of the Top 14. Instead of the Champions Cup, it was the Challenge Cup and instead of providing the bulk of the squad for the national side, Toulouse had no players selected by Jacques Brunel when he named his starting XV to face Ireland in the first round of the 2018 Six Nations.
Eighteen months later, however, and Toulouse have been transformed into something resembling the club that terrified opponents for the best part of 20 years. Last season they won their first Top 14 final since 2012 – lifting the Bouclier de Brennus for an incredible 20th time – and reached their first European Cup semi-final since 2011.
Brunel’s 31-man World Cup squad Brunel featured eight players from Toulouse – more than any other club. Six of the eight are backs, and among them are a new generation in Antoine Dupont, Thomas Ramos and Romain Ntamack, aged 22, 24 and 20 respectively.
Ntamack was a member of the U20 squad that beat England last year to win their first world title in that age group and he’s since won senior caps, as has another of his U20 team-mates, Brive prop Demba Bamba.
Watch how France did in their opening RWC 2019 match against Argentina…
When I met Dupont, Ramos and Ntamack in Toulouse, I had a sense of déjà vu. Seventeen years earlier I had sat before three of the most precocious talents in the French game at the time and listened to their statements of intent. But Frédéric Michalak, Clément Poitrenaud and Nicolas Jeanjean arguably never fulfilled that early potential, and only time will tell how rugby will remember Dupont, Ramos and Ntamack.
Dupont, as befits a scrum-half, is the character of the three friends. Asked under the glorious Toulouse sun if he one day might sign for an English club, he shoots back with a grin: “If global warming continues, why not?”
Ntamack is the city slicker, a stylish, softly-spoken young man who escapes the pressures of international sport by meeting his non-rugby playing friends for a coffee on the terrace of one of Toulouse’s myriad cafés.
Full-back Ramos is the only one of the three who lives outside the city; he’s a country lad at heart and his idea of relaxation is building his own house.
There’s been plenty of rebuilding work in Toulouse in recent years, a new empire arising from the ruins of the Ancien Régime administered by Guy Novès. Like Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, Novès outstayed his welcome as head coach by several seasons and when he did finally depart after 22 years in 2015 for his ill-fated stint to take charge of France, he left behind a club in decay. It was only last season that his successor, Ugo Mola, has seen the results of his extensive redevelopment.
“We’ve been developing a style of rugby in recent years that is now bearing fruit,” explains Dupont, who arrived from Castres. “We’ve also recruited intelligently, signing players who fit easily into the style we’re trying to achieve. In the back-line we’re all attack-minded. We want to get our hands on the ball and we will counter-attack whenever we can.”
Dupont is one such intelligent signing, arriving in the summer of 2017, along with another astute acquisition, the Springbok winger Cheslin Kolbe. “I’d never heard about Antoine when I arrived at Toulouse,” explains Kolbe. “It was crazy when I learnt how young he was. I thought he’d been playing Top 14 rugby for years. He’s got maturity, all the skills, and he’s a physical boy, too, who doesn’t shy away from contact.”
At 25, Kolbe is a senior citizen of the Toulouse back-line, a grizzled veteran compared to young guns like Dupont, Ntamack, Ramos, Arthur Bonneval and Lucas Tauzin. But on those young shoulders are cool heads, as they demonstrated more than once last season. In the quarter-final of the Champions Cup against Racing 92, for instance, Toulouse had Zack Holmes dismissed for a high tackle on 23 minutes but still had the wit and willpower to win 22-21 in Paris.
“After the red card we told ourselves not to panic,” reflects Ntamack. “We were playing well, so it was a case of continuing to play the same way. We knew it was going to be a challenge but everyone was prepared to put in twice as much effort.”
The 30-12 defeat by Leinster in Dublin in the European semi-final was a reminder to Toulouse that there remains a difference in intensity between the Champions Cup and the slower, more physical Top 14. “There are some matches in the Top 14 that are intense but in general European games are tougher,” says Ramos.
Dupont agrees, adding: “I don’t find much difference in intensity and technical skill between playing against clubs like Saracens and Leinster, and playing in the Six Nations.”
On their rise through the representative ranks, Dupont, Ntamack and Ramos have been coached by some of the most emblematic names in French rugby: from Novès to Fabien Pelous to Olivier Magne to Thomas Lièvremont to Brunel.
For Ramos, one coach stands out: “I find that the Toulouse attacking philosophy of today is similar to what Olivier Magne instilled in the France U20s,” he explains. “It’s an offensive game plan based on rapid movement.
“Olivier was the first coach to tell me that once you’ve broken the advantage line you no longer have a number on your back, you’re just a rugby player. That’s what we’re trying to implement at Toulouse, a style of rugby in which we aren’t confined to one position but can all play like threequarters or be effective at the breakdown.”
Ntamack, comfortable at fly-half or centre, has the advantage of being able to draw on the vast experience of his dad, Émile, an elegant threequarter capped 46 times for France in the 1990s.
“Dad’s been coaching me since I was very young and today I still ask his advice,” says Romain. “Sometimes I ask him to watch a game and analyse a specific aspect of my game. He’s always very precise in his comments.”
Ntamack senior played in two World Cups, finishing third in 1995 and as a runner-up to Australia four years later. Can his son go one better in Japan? Hopes were not high before the tournament given inconsistent form and the fact they are grouped with England and Argentina as well as Tonga and USA, but Dupont says: “The fact we’re outsiders could suit us well.
“Most people think we’re not going to make it out of the group, so with expectations so low there will be less pressure on our shoulders. But at the same time we know we have the talent to beat big teams.”
Ntamack cites the lack of consistency as the principal cause of France’s steady descent from a Tier One country to a lower-ranked rugby nation in recent years.
“We used to be known for being unpredictable from one match to the next,” he says ruefully. “Now, as we showed in this year’s Six Nations against Wales, we’re unpredictable from one half to the next. It’s about correcting small details because if we do that we’ll gain in confidence and that’s always been key to French teams.”
France may not expect much from this World Cup, but 2023 is another matter. For a start it’s in France, and by then the likes of Dupont, Ramos and Ntamack will be at their peak. They will also – if all goes well – have had four years of coaching and management from the new staff of Fabien Galthié, Shaun Edwards, William Servat and Raphaël Ibañez.
Asked what they know of Edwards, Ntamack replies: “We’ve seen what he’s done with Wales and how their success has been built on a brilliant defence, so we hope he can bring that organisation to France.”
Maybe les Bleus, like Toulouse, are on the brink of an unprecedented era of international dominance that will climax with their winning the Webb Ellis Cup in October 2023. Then again, didn’t I write something similar 17 years ago? Perhaps it’s best just to sit back and enjoy the ride that is always French rugby.
This article originally appeared in the September 2019 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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