Sport Champions Cup

Tuesday 23 January 2018

A comic book tale bursting with heroes

The inside story of how Toulon were converted from a sleeping giant to the most dominant team in Europe

Toulon’s players arriving by boat to greet supporters gathered in Toulon after winning the Top 14 championship and Heineken Cup last season.
Toulon’s players arriving by boat to greet supporters gathered in Toulon after winning the Top 14 championship and Heineken Cup last season.
Tana Umaga was one of the first stars to drop anchor in the Mediterranean city
David Kelly

David Kelly

To understand Toulon in the present it is necessary to understand where Toulon came from in the past.

Philip Fitzgerald has witnessed the revolution at first hand. He was a student in Edinburgh in 1997 when obliged to study abroad for a year. He chose Toulon. He chose a new life.

"I decided to knock on their door and see what happened," he recalls now, sitting less than 800 metres from the becalmed Mediterranean sipping a glass of red wine. He has made worse decisions.

He won a French U-23 title and when his coach invited him back to the senior team in 1999, he didn't hesitate. But, as he prepares to watch his side's tilt at unprecedented domination in Europe, he recalls a different time and different place.

Back then, the city was dripping in poverty and under the grip of the National Front; crowds were thin despite a recent memory of Top 14 title success in 1992; "We had two secretaries running the place and the gym was stuck in a time warp."

In 2000, they were booted out of the Top 14, charged with carrying an unsustainable debt - for all the current browbeating, they are one of only two French sides who are financially stable - and they nearly slipped into the oblivion of the third tier.

"A lot of people assumed it would be a breeze to return, the crowds started flocking back," recalls Fitzgerald. "We got to the final in Nimes against Montauban, 15,000 of our supporters travelled but we just didn't play. We lost 15-9 and spent another five years in the second division.

"They still had the aura of a great team but nothing else; we didn't hit rock bottom but we were close to it. Once we won away to Rochelle and for us it was like winning a World Cup final.

"Little by little, the confidence started coming back and when we were promoted they were faithful to the squad. Sadly, we lost the first six games, the coaches left halfway through and we were back down again after winning three games. It was all very short-lived."

And then Mourad Boudjellal came to the rescue in the manner of one of the comic book heroes upon whom the son of Algerian immigrants had made his immense fortune; he knew little about comic books but he knew business.

When he pitched up in Toulon he knew little about rugby, either. But his knowledge of business, allied to a colourful personality, would be key.

"None of us had ever heard of this guy. One day he walked into our dressing-room with a Muhammad Ali T-shirt and told us, 'I am a winner. One day you will all be winners too!'"

It was then the first superstars started arriving and, one Friday at a Captain's Run, the greatest yet. Tana Umaga.

"I remember he scored a try to win the game against Dax, he leaped above everyone to catch a high ball, then swerved past three guys to score," recalls Fitzgerald.

The comic book man had introduced a new hero. At a price. For just 12 games Umaga was offered a salary of €300,000, an apartment and three cars, one for himself, one for the use of his family and one for the nanny.

"Mourad did something that nobody believed he could do, what's more it worked so well," adds Fitzgerald. "That set him up for everything you see happening now. He'd seen enough of rugby, now he had the appetite and adrenalin.

"People say he's mad but I disagree. He's not a very tender chap, you don't often see him in the huddle or talking rugby. But he's an extremely smart chap, a brilliant business man.

"When he first arrived, he didn't understand rugby and said things you shouldn't say. He learned quickly. He still says things that are outlandish but they're never spontaneous, they're always planned. He is unorthodox but then he doesn't have a rugby background.

"But he took the club to the top. Toulon is a different world now."

It took them two years to get promoted and all the while, galacticos arrived on demand. Matfield. Mehrtens, Gregan. Oliver. "Ridiculous names."

All the while, the French rugby establishment sneered at the perceived pomposity of the roster and their owner, with his penchant for dressing head to toe in black, driving a Maserati and insulting "blazerdom".

Even their own former players held a sniffy disregard for the side's apparent softness, as if they were repudiating the long-standing traditions of a once proud club then celebrating its centenary.

And so the team made a stand. While other teams publicly declared their intentions to rough up Toulon, Toulon decided to give as good as they got. The result can be seen here

"Teams just wanted to smash us, referees were turning a blind eye and old school players were calling us soft in the press. We had a game in Pau and we were ready for it.

"If it kicks off, we'd be ready. We couldn't accept it anymore. And it kicked off. And we were ready. It was a lineout move where I was trying to rip the ball from a maul. It exploded. We all got suspended. But we'd made a point. From then on, we could play our rugby."

They eventually returned to the top flight but struggled with Umaga now in the coaching box; it took the arrival of Philippe Saint-Andre, with a cadre of Sale players - stars too, Jerry Collins, Sonny Bill Williams - and a more dedicated training attitude, to maintain the progression.

And then there was Sir Jonny.

"We knew we could push more, get more from ourselves. Jonny Wilkinson was the supreme example, he was off the scale. He used to give me tips on how to throw! It was a progression to another level."

Fitzgerald could hold his own; even with All Black Anton Oliver in town, the Scot captained the side and shared first-team responsibilities.


"I thought 'Am I supposed to be here?' Then I said 'Well, I am here so what are you going to do about it?' So I tried to learn from these guys what made them so great.

"I couldn't pinch myself or afford to have my head in the clouds, this was happening. So I couldn't waste it by just being. I had to be an actor and make it count. Still, it was like a PlayStation team at times."

Fitzgerald's stint in France may have cost him an international career but he would never dare swap it; he retired when Toulon reached their first European final, the 2010 Challenge Cup, losing to Cardiff.

That was another learning curve and, while the stars continue to shine, this is no vanity project like Roman Abramovich's Chelsea. Toulon are of Toulon and the passion is mutual.

"For all the money," concludes Fitzgerald, "rugby doesn't work with big heads. These players are being asked every day to push themselves and that demands a lot of humility."

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