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Peter Bills: Toulon's maverick demands return on big spend

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England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson is one of the big names signed by owner Mourad Boudjellal. Photo: PA

England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson is one of the big names signed by owner Mourad Boudjellal. Photo: PA

England World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson is one of the big names signed by owner Mourad Boudjellal. Photo: PA

Mourad Boudjellal has a private business that turns over around €40m a year, private wealth that runs into tens of millions and a collection of sports cars to make 007 drool, including a Ferrari Enzo and Maserati Gran Turismo.

Alas, what the owner of Toulon may not yet have acquired is patience. When Jonny Wilkinson, his costliest capture in the rugby transfer market, missed a simple 26-metre penalty kick at goal early in Sunday night's French Top 14 match at Racing Metro, Boudjellal sat on the sidelines, rolled his eyes and shook his head in bewilderment.

You could almost read his thoughts: "All that money and the guy can't even kick a goal from there."

But then, what do you expect for only €750,000 a season, Wilkinson's reputed salary?

By the end of the match, when Toulon had lost 15-12, you can bet that straightforward missed penalty remained firmly in Boudjellal's mind.

Crucial

Still, you've got to look on the bright side. And for sure there's a bright side for the owner of a club that will meet Munster in a crucial Heineken Cup match at the Stade Mayol this Sunday afternoon.

Boudjellal has done well, very well, in life. The son of an Algerian, Boudjellal (50) was brought up in Toulon's red light district, a far cry from the world he has since inhabited.

Today, Soleil Productions, the comic-book business he set up, is a multi-million euro business that funds his expensive yet unconventional lifestyle.

There are the fast cars, the signature toy of the rich playboys. But what about a house or two? Boudjellal doesn't believe in them, preferring to buy suites in top hotels around the world.

He has quite an expensive taste in rugby players, too. Since Boudjellal became president in 2006, Toulon has become a sort of international 'who's who' for top-class players.

Tana Umaga, Victor Matfield, George Gregan, Jonny Wilkinson, Sonny Bill Williams, Joe van Niekerk, Andrew Mehrtens, Carl Hayman, Anton Oliver and Dan Luger are among the better-known stars who have flocked to this naval port on the Mediterranean.

Umaga is said to have earned €300,000 for playing 10 matches, Gregan €400,000 for a season, Matfield €260,000 for a six-month deal.

Boudjellal has such deep pockets that he can even outbid the mighty New Zealand Rugby Union, who wanted to take ace tight-head prop Carl Hayman home from Newcastle for their World Cup bid.

Boudjellal's reputed €625,000-a-season salary offer soon persuaded Hayman that French lamb was every bit as good as the New Zealand version and, as for the World Cup, that could go hang.

Boudjellal has his critics. It still sits uneasily on many people's shoulders to see a club owner hanging around on the touchline before and during a game.

What is he supposed to be doing there? He surely can't be opening a bottle of the champagne he is said to enjoy as his preferred drink? Not when Wilkinson misses penalty kicks from 26 metres.

Yet whatever else is said about Boudjellal, he cannot be accused of failing to put his money where his mouth is.

Virtually single-handed, he has dragged Toulon, once one of the strongest clubs in French rugby before they fell by the wayside, back up to the top echelons of the game, not just in his country but in all Europe.

Relegated to Division 2 of the French Championship as recently as July 2000 with a 10m-Franc debt, they remained out of the top flight for five long years. And even when they did return, they were gone again within a single season.

But Boudjellal's arrival transformed the club.

"Our first season in the Top 14 was very difficult and I learned that Tana Umaga was not yet ready to give up playing -- and that he was not a manager," said Boudjellal.

That statement alone, given its biting clarity, tells us very forcefully that this guy is no fool in any field.

Since then, and for a long time with money from his own pockets, Boudjellal saw the recruitment of experienced international stars as the best way to establish Toulon in the top flight. But it was not a cheap option.

However, today it is said that Toulon's widespread renown means that most of the day-to-day running costs of the club are funded by income from commercial sponsors.

Toulon have an awful lot of them and they pay some hefty fees to be on board.

Yet, as Toulon eye victory over Munster this weekend, which would move them closer to a Heineken Cup quarter-final place, Boudjellal's statement of intent will be in the back of their minds.

Even as a new stadium is being planned and built, the owner has laid out his strategy for the future. The shock news is, it won't include Toulon rugby for that much longer.

"I will stay on for three more years" he has said.

"After that, I will leave when I have achieved my goals of securing a good sponsor, building a new stadium and developing our academy."

By which time, hopefully, Wilkinson will have learned how to kick penalties from 26 metres so that the Toulon club's saviour can at least depart happily and at peace with the world.

Irish Independent