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Peter Bills: Toulon aim to take historic step forward at Munster's expense

Toulon boast a multi-millionaire owner, a squad richly endowed with glittering overseas stars and a budget for this season of €20.8m. Yet stereotypes are inappropriate in the case of Munster's opponents in the Heineken Cup this Sunday.

The French Top 14 club might appear the epitome of a slick, modern professional club. Yet they retain little elements that remind you strongly of some of old rugby's most charming aspects.

Before every home game, five male singers, long-time Toulonnais supporters from the Var, form in a circle in the centre of the pitch and sing the club's traditional song. It is a nice touch, something far removed from the predictable thumping rock music which unimaginative clubs classify as 'entertainment'.

Nor could you call their home ground state of the art. The Stade Felix Mayol is bursting at the seams with just 12,500 inside. And its position is unique: a stone's throw from the Toulon dockyard, right in the centre of the town, from where ferries sail across the Mediterranean.

Nurturing

Nor is that all. Munster will see similar traditions upheld, concerning the nurturing and protection of some of the game's great old values.

The players are encouraged to talk with fans, pose for their pictures and sign autographs. Supporters can express their views to their heroes, unlike at too many clubs where the players are hermetically sealed safely away from others. Furthermore, there is a warm welcome offered here to strangers, old-time rugby's great forte.

Yet on the field, Toulon have been a muddled mix this season. Prior to last night's match in Paris against Racing Metro, Toulon had won nine and lost six of their Top 14 games this season.

At their best, which they came close to last time out against Biarritz, winning 38-26 at the Stade Felix Mayol with four tries, they represent a fearsome challenge.

In their more dismal times, the sum of the parts can very definitely fail to add up to the whole.

Jonny Wilkinson and Paul Sackey (England), Joe van Niekerk (South Africa), George Smith and Matt Henjack (Australia), Carl Hayman and Rudi Wulf (New Zealand), Rory Lamont (Scotland), plus Felipe Contepomi and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (Argentina) are just some of the overseas contingent.

Yet Toulon's growing pains have been substantial at times. They've lost at home to Bayonne and Racing Metro, been beaten away at places like Brive and Bayonne. A glorious muddle and mix?

Van Niekerk, an inspirational captain, regards Sunday's Heineken Cup encounter with Munster as part of a critical period in the French team's season.

"These are three decisive weeks for our future," he said last week. "The match in Paris against Racing Metro and then the Heineken Cup games home to Munster and away to the Ospreys will be vital.

"People may talk about us and our periods of good form, such as 11 matches without defeat last season. But for me, that is not enough. At the moment, we have not won anything and if we want to say we have really arrived, we must do that.

"That is why we want to make our impression this season: to achieve a big reward in the Top 14 Championship and also to reach the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup.

"That would be historic for the club and the group."

Toulon have been champions of France, most recently in 1992 after earlier triumphs in 1931 and 1987. But thus far, this season has been a frustration after they finished second in the Top 14 last season and lost in the play-off semi-final.

But victory over Munster would be a substantial prize, perhaps capable of catapulting their whole season forward.

The prize remains tantalisingly within reach. But probably not even Toulon know whether they can reach out and seize it.

Irish Independent