Toulon battling to the top on two fronts
Top 14 success the priority for club rescued from the brink of ruin, writes Paul Rees
Toulon have become renowned as the big spenders of European rugby, stockpiling talent from all over the world with the South Africa wing Bryan Habana the latest leading international to join them, but it was only 12 years ago that they faced ruin with financial problems.
It was an extraordinary time for Toulon. This city was a stronghold for the right-wing Front National from 1995 until 2001, and was struggling.
Towards the end of that time, in 2000, the auditors of the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) discovered a multi-million-franc financial deficit and the club was relegated to the second division.
Within a year Toulon's current team manager Tom Whitford joined the club from Perpignan, having moved to France in 1999 after Richmond went under.
It took Toulon five years to get back to the top flight, and they lasted only one season, but in 2006 Mourad Boudjellal, who had made a fortune from comic books, took over and started bankrolling big-name signings, starting with the former New Zealand captain Tana Umaga.
Boudjellal was the son of Algerians, and immigrants had suffered under the six-year rule of the Front National and the rise of the rugby club under his ownership has not only taken it back a generation – Toulon won the last of three league titles in 1992 – but has helped rejuvenate the city which, although being on the Cote d'Azur, does not attract tourists like Nice, Cannes and St Tropez.
"We are an old-fashioned French club," said Whitford. "Everyone knows about the players we have attracted from all over the world like Jonny Wilkinson, Matt Giteau and Bakkies Botha, but what is not often mentioned is that we have a thriving academy full of local young players. There is a misconception about Toulon spending Mourad's millions bringing in players from all over, but two points need to be made.
"First, we are the fifth-biggest spenders in the Top 14 after Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne and the two Paris clubs and, second, we are self-funded: we only spend what we earn through television money, sponsorship and match days. Mourad's investment was in the early years when he brought in the likes of Umaga, George Gregan and Victor Matfield to get the club back into the Top 14; it now pays for itself."
In 2000, it paid for financial irregularities. "The Front National [FN] was running Toulon," Whitford said. "When [financial] problems at the club arose, the LNR investigated and we were relegated. It was a tough time, but there was a political change in 2001 and then Mourad arrived. I know things were difficult for him when the FN was running the city, but it is not something he talks about and you would have to ask him."
The visit of Leicester is the first of two significant games for Toulon in a week. Next Sunday, the Top 14 leaders welcome Clermont Auvergne, who are two points behind them, at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. The two clubs are the favourites to make the play-off final and having been kept apart in the Heineken Cup semi-final draw, they could meet in the final of European club rugby's showpiece in Dublin next month.
The Top 14 is the heartbeat of French rugby. Clubs would rather have the Bouclier de Brennus, the shield the league champions receive, than the H Cup, as it is called in France because of a ban on the advertising of alcohol. Which is not to say Toulon will be treating Leicester as a frolic – but their captain, Joe van Niekerk, is on the bench.
"The Top 14 is the priority," said Whitford. "We have not won it for 21 years and it is a competition rich in history and meaning. The H Cup is new to us: it is only the second season we have played in it. If our supporters were given a choice, they would go for the Top 14 because it would mean getting one over on the other clubs, but Europe helps raise the profile of Toulon, giving the club and the region a wider exposure. We will be going all out to win on Sunday."
Wilkinson will captain Toulon, one of six English players in their squad: only second-row Simon Shaw will not be involved against Leicester. The other four, the Armitage brothers, Andrew Sheridan and Nick Kennedy will start and the presence of so many Anglos is one reason why the club took exception to a poster advertising the game drawn up this week by a supporters' website bearing the words: Toulon-Leicester: at Easter, we also eat roast beef."
Toulon denounced the poster on its website, saying: "We condemn an insult to the English. It sullies the image of a city and a club that work every day to bring people and cultures together." It brought an immediate apology and the withdrawal of the poster, with those responsible for it saying the intention had been to amuse, not hurt.
Leicester will still receive the hottest of welcomes at Stade Felix Mayol, a ground named after a concert hall singer who bought the land for the club after the First World War.
"The capacity may be just under 15,000, but the noise the fans generate make it seem like two or three times bigger," Whitford said. "Rugby is a passion here and we are the only big club in the area: the nearest, Montpellier, is more than two hours away. The game is a sell-out and I can promise that the support and the passion come kick-off will be incredible. This is a working-class city and we have a close connection with the supporters.
"We have come a long way in a short space of time, but we have won nothing yet having lost one Top 14 final and two Amlin Challenge Cup finals and a trophy is our driving force. We have players of many different nationalities but they have immersed themselves in the culture here and we are still very French, situated in a beautiful part of the country."