Monday 21 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: Ire of comic-book villain will matter little if famous win is delivered

Boudjellal and (inset) Nigel Owens
Boudjellal and (inset) Nigel Owens
Referee Nigel Owens. Photo: Sportsfile
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

Having made his personal fortune from publishing comic books, it is perhaps not surprising that Mourad Boudjellal seems to be so comfortable playing the role of the eccentric villain.

While his presence so close to the coalface is abnormal and, at times, undoubtedly uncomfortable for his world-renowned players, Boudjellal's millions and unquenchable passion for rugby have restored Toulon to their halcyon days and secured their status as one of Europe's heaviest hitters in the professional era.

Boudjellal has certainly developed a unique, cut-throat culture at Toulon, but the scores of world-class players he has attracted to the south of France have seen them consistently compete for Top 14 honours, reaching that particular summit in 2013-14, and becoming the first club to be crowned the top team in Europe for three successive seasons.

Similarities with Roman Abramovich's autocratic set-up at Chelsea are plentiful, and ultimately the sideshows and uncertainty that come with having such an impulsive owner so front and centre regularly raises questions about sustainability.

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There is certainly nothing superhuman about the Toulon president's insistence on making the same ill-judged mistakes over and over again.

His lack of tact and self-restraint and his tempestuous nature continue to get him into trouble - his obvious Kryptonite exists in the shape of referees and other rugby officials.

Most recently, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) issued a formal misconduct complaint against Boudjellal after he questioned the integrity of the EPCR following Mathieu Bastareaud's three-week ban for calling Benetton's Sebastian Negri "a f***ing f****t" during a Champions Cup pool game in January.

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"What I fear is the 'Mormon' side of the EPCR with the Welsh and the Irish," Boudjellal told French website Rugbyrama.

"These are people who preach morality although they haven't any themselves. The same people who have (government) ministers who get themselves whipped in private but pass themselves off as 'clean' guys in public."

I suspect Boudjellal initially had good intentions of solely defending his player, insisting that it was poor and inappropriate use of language without homophobic intentions, a point, having met the humble Bastareaud on a number of occasions, that I can understand.

But Boudjellal couldn't stop himself there, and his charge sheet continues to grow.

The 57-year-old may be used to being submerged in hot water but that doesn't make him immune from getting burned. The confrontational multi-millionaire once compared Wallabies playmaker Quade Cooper to regular, run-of-the-mill paté, rather than the foie gras that he is so accustomed, and such was his disgust after the St Patrick's Day defeat at Top 14 strugglers Oyonnax a fortnight ago, Toulon's players had to navigate the 500km back to the south of France themselves and three of the team's coaches were reportedly put on gardening leave.

Boudjellal will argue that his punitive methods produce results, and after stoking the fire on March 17, his players, whose wage structure is heavily weighted towards win bonuses, responded in kind by destroying fellow French giants Clermont 49-0 six days ago.

Remember, this is the same man who in 2012, following a Top 14 defeat to Clermont, said: "I had my first refereeing sodomy in the semi-final (last season) against Clermont, I've just had my second tonight. It appeared to hurt the first time but it was just as bad the second time. We will review the images not on YouTube but on YouPorn."

That astonishing outburst earned Boudjellal a 130-day suspension but a series of incidents and complaints about referees have followed.

His most recent eight-week touchline ban was issued in January - following a 40-29 loss at Racing - after he said of 28-year-old referee Thomas Charabas, an emergency-room doctor: "I hope he makes fewer mistakes when he operates."

This afternoon's man in the middle, Nigel Owens, is another to have been the subject of Boudjellal's wrath over the years.

After a 10-3 defeat to Saracens in January 2017, Boudjellal suggested the official would be better served working in a sport like badminton, before later tweeting, "Nigel Owens the best, even to be bad is the best".

This week, in the wake of the Bastareaud ban and the Toulon president's subsequent faux pas, and perhaps his history of berating the Welshman, Boudjellal has questioned the decision to appoint Owens as the referee for this afternoon's game at Thomond Park because of his homosexuality.

"The choice of the referee for the match against Munster… we will see what will happen in the coming days," Boudjellal said.

"Despite the fact that Nigel Owens is surely the best referee in the world, despite the fact that he is of perfect integrity in my opinion, his appointment in the current context does not seem to me the best. I remind you that there will be Bastareaud in this match and I find it surprising.

"So we'll see in the days that follow. We will see if we are legitimate to ask questions or if we are totally paranoid. We will quickly know."

Boudjellal is fortunate that his improper conduct is a rarity in the game and that the majority of his contemporaries in professional rugby, including Owens, strive to be as diligent as they can be.

It's a massive European clash, so the performances of the players, and potentially the referee, will be under even more scrutiny than usual but such is Owens' experience in the game, he won't be affected by any pre-match sound-bites.


The off-field sideshows may be intriguing but the on-field battle promises to be equally, if not more, entertaining.

Munster are missing a number of key players and while they are favourites in the eyes of the bookies, bizarrely in my view, they will need to produce their best performance of the season to see off a side with as much depth and star quality as Toulon.

Collectively you would hope that Munster have an advantage in terms of fitness, and the Thomond Park factor remains an important weapon on these momentous European occasions; however, they will need to match their imposing visitors physically and play intelligently if they are to prevail this afternoon.

Johann van Graan is without a number of front-line players but Munster showed last week against the reigning PRO12 champions, particularly up front, that they are finding form at just the right time.

As a player these are the kind of games that you do all the hard yards for, and they are the fixtures you miss the most in retirement.

Considering the roller-coaster nature of their season, between coaching changes, injuries, and protracted contract negotiations, reaching the Champions Cup semi-finals for a second successive year would be quite an achievement for this group of players.

Munster must seize the moment and if they do, the verbal volleys of Toulon's resident villain will matter little - who knows, they may even provide a bit of comic relief.

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