Toulon were one of the “nearly men” of Europe last season – Amlin Challenge Cup finalists and French Championship semi-finalists – and captain Joe van Niekerk believes the Heineken Cup newcomers will be all the stronger for those near misses when they face the double champions Munster, the Ospreys and London Irish in one of the most competitive 2010 / 2011 tournament Pools.
Toulon President Mourad Boudjellal has assembled a formidable array of talent on the Mediterranean coast – 16 internationals from nine nations – under Director of Rugby Philippe Saint-Andre and the first Heineken Cup match at Stade Felix-Mayol against the Ospreys promises to be one of the contests and occasions of the opening weekend.
“The Heineken Cup is one of the strongest competitions to be in and it is fantastic that we have the opportunity to participate – not only for me personally but for the whole of Toulon,” said the South African international flanker.
“It is really historic for the whole club and the town so it’s a big challenge for us.
“And we will be fighting on two fronts this year because we want success in the Heineken Cup and the Top 14 so the group of players we have has to be strong to fight for each competition.
“In the Heineken Cup we have the Ospreys first up and we are looking to pull something off against them to get us some form and start a good run in the competition.
“The Ospreys match is the key one for us, if we can get that one in the bag then hopefully we can go from there.
“However, the whole group is so strong and Munster in particular have so much experience. They have won the competition a couple of times, been to finals, and semis and they have the old heads.
“They know how to play the tournament and they are going to be our biggest rivals.”
While Munster have played in 109 Heineken Cup matches and the Ospreys and London Irish in 45 and 26 respectively, van Niekerk believes Toulon will not be found wanting in the area of big time experience with the arrivals of Wallaby flanker George Smith, England wing Paul Sackey and All Blacks prop Carl Hyman just the latest big names alongside the likes of Jonny Wilkinson.
“I know we only have limited Heineken Cup experience – and of course if would be nice to have had more – but collectively as a squad we have World Cup winners, a Tri Nations winner and very experienced guys, so if we can bring that together when needed it will really help,” said van Niekerk. “We have good players who have all played at the very top and we are all really up for it.
“George is a legend, he is amazing. He walked in and was one of the boys straight away, he adds his input but he is just a quiet and regular guy and it is great to play alongside him.
“Jonny is fantastic, we all know what he brings to a team and at the moment he is at the top of his game and is driving us forward. To have a guy like him around is massive for Toulon.
“I have always watched the Heineken Cup and thought that it is a great standard and is the biggest thing to challenge for in Europe.
“In everyone’s mind we want the biggest matches, we want to be facing Munster and the Ospreys as you cherish and savour those matches.
“I had been doing a lot of thinking on how we motivate guys to play for Toulon, but now the hunger is there and if we can push on with the momentum we have, we can have a good season.”