French rugby soul-searches before Newcastle’s visit to Toulon

first_imgToulouse features The Falcons are hardly in the finest of fettle, propping up the Premiership five months after reaching the play-offs for the first time, but fresh pastures may prove reinvigorating. Toulon’s appetite for Europe is more questionable. François Trinh-Duc, their France outside-half, said: “We go into the Champions Cup with the taste of the Top 14 in our mouths.”Toulon’s fall has not been as spectacular as their rise, when they quickly went from the second division to European and Top 14 titles, and it may turn out to be a blip, but their colourful owner Mourad Boudjellal’s use of his chequebook, so rewarding in the past, offers less succour now because of the man who enjoyed success as the club’s head coach in the middle of the decade, Bernard Laporte.Laporte now heads the French Rugby Federation and has cracked down on the excessive number of overseas players in the Top 14. Boudjellal spoke two weeks ago of needing to sign five players, acknowledging that three had to be qualified to play for France. Not that many of his acquisitions in recent seasons have matched recruits like Jonny Wilkinson and Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe, with former All Blacks like Ma’a Nonu and Julian Savea struggling in a tactically unfamiliar environment.Boudjellal is on his fifth head coach in three years since Laporte’s departure and has vowed to stick with the current incumbent Patrice Collazo even if it means a return to the second division. Yet, curiously for someone who invested in success, he believes that money is the curse of the French club game. “The clubs that have a passion for the game and a rugby culture are suffering,” he said. “They are being overwhelmed by clubs with billionaires and empty stadiums. I agree with [World Rugby’s vice-chairman] Agustín Pichot when he says that rugby is in danger. It is clear that it is.”Toulon’s match with Newcastle wraps up the opening round of the Champions Cup: there are, mercifully, no Sunday evening kick-offs now that there is just one British broadcaster. For all the ambivalence the French at times appear to have had for Europe, they have supplied nine finalists over the years to England’s five, Ireland’s three and Wales’s one. Champions Cup Support The Guardian Read more Share on WhatsApp Champions Cup 2018-19: six players to watch in Europe’s elite competition Topics Toulon Share on Twitter Share on Pinterest Rugby union Share on Messengercenter_img Read more Sign up to the Breakdown for the latest rugby union news Share via Email Newcastle Share on Facebook Since you’re here… The Breakdown Share on LinkedIn There have been five all-French finals compared to one all-English and one all-Irish and the last year a Top 14 club did not appear on the final day was in 2012 when Leinster defeated Ulster. The tournament has been therapeutic for clubs in a league in which away victories used to be scarce for cultural reasons, not least that home teams were expected to win and referees knew it.Of the six French clubs in the Champions Cup this season, only Toulon have a poor away record with four defeats out of four. Four of the other five have 50% returns while Racing 92, last season’s beaten finalists, have won two of their three matches on the road. As Clermont Auvergne, the Top 14 leaders who are in the Challenge Cup this season, showed last season at Saracens, the French have found a cure for travel sickness.The globalisation of the club game in France has also been a factor as the rugby world becomes smaller. Montpellier’s first game is at home to Edinburgh: their head coach Vern Cotter arrived from Scotland, and his opposite number, Richard Cockerill, had a stint with Toulon, who are in the same group, after being sacked by Leicester.Cotter said: “The Champions Cup is an international competition with legendary teams in each pool, clubs who have written themselves in the history of the tournament.“The rules are different from the Top 14: there is more playing time and the game is quicker. It demands more from players and you want to be able to play against the very best in Europe. We were in a difficult pool last season and only managed two wins. This year we are determined to do all that it takes to qualify for the quarter-finals.”Toulouse return after a year in the Challenge Cup. Their record of winning four finals was last season matched by Leinster and it is 2010 since their last triumph. They have wobbled in recent weeks in the Top 14 after a strong start and their match on Saturday at Bath pairs two of the first three winners in the 1990s, an echo in a tournament that continues to provide fresh voices.• This is an extract from our weekly rugby union email, the Breakdown. To subscribe just visit this page and follow the instructions. … we have a small favour to ask. More people, like you, are reading and supporting the Guardian’s independent, investigative journalism than ever before. And unlike many news organisations, we made the choice to keep our reporting open for all, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay. Whether we are up close or further away, the Guardian brings our readers a global perspective on the most critical issues of our lifetimes – from the escalating climate catastrophe to widespread inequality to the influence of big tech on our lives. We believe complex stories need context in order for us to truly understand them. At a time when factual information is a necessity, we believe that each of us, around the world, deserves access to accurate reporting with integrity at its heart.Our editorial independence means we set our own agenda and voice our own opinions. Guardian journalism is free from commercial and political bias and not influenced by billionaire owners or shareholders. This means we can give a voice to those less heard, explore where others turn away, and rigorously challenge those in power.We hope you will consider supporting us today. We need your support to keep delivering quality journalism that’s open and independent. Every reader contribution, however big or small, is so valuable. Support The Guardian from as little as $1 – and it only takes a minute. Thank you. Newcastle’s last appearance in the European Cup was against Stade Français in Paris in the 2005 quarter-final and it is to France they travel on their reappearance this Sunday. At the start of the season, a trip to Toulon might not have presaged the happiest of returns; the club that won the tournament for three successive seasons earlier this decade only avoided dropping into the Top 14’s relegation zone last weekend because of a superior points difference over Agen.French clubs have tended to put Europe second if fighting on two fronts undermines their campaign in the Top 14, still the holy grail for most in a country that has had a league system for almost as long as it has had rugby. Castres are a notable example, operating on a much lower budget than most of their rivals: they tend to exit Europe early but have won the league twice in the last six seasons. Reuse this contentlast_img read more