Two wounded beasts prepare for dogfight
Toulouse and the Tigers desperate to rekindle their fires, says Paul Ackford
No debate over the tie of the Heineken Cup's opening round. Toulouse, champions of France, four times winners of the tournament, currently lying second behind Toulon after eight rounds of the Top 14, up against Leicester, English Grand Final contenders last season for the eighth consecutive occasion, third in the Premiership and champions of Europe themselves in 2001 and 2002.
Both teams jam-packed with internationals. Leicester grit against French flamboyance. Two clubs who between them have won over a third of the 17 Heineken Cup finals, and featured in 11 of them. The match reeks of class and significance.
Or does it? There is an argument that both clubs are not quite the powerhouses of old, that, maybe, their best days are behind them. That's not to say they are irrelevant in this season's tournament. To even hint at that would be crazy, given the resilience of which both are capable. But a rise in competitiveness across the board, coupled with a slight deterioration in their standards, has made today's match even more absorbing.
Last season Toulouse lost three of their European ties, including the quarter-final against Edinburgh. But if that result was a surprise, it was nothing compared to the disbelief that greeted Gloucester's Kingsholm victory in the group stages, and the defeat, in Toulouse, by Harlequins earlier. It was the manner of those losses that hurt most because they proved that Toulouse were no longer masters of the swaggering, attacking rugby which has defined their European runs.
Quins and Gloucester, fearless both, ran hard and imaginatively at Toulouse.
Edinburgh did the same at Murrayfield and exposed a lack of -- how to put this politely -- intestinal fortitude in the French giants. That's the principal issue they have to address this season. There is nothing wrong with their playing resources. Six of their squad -- Jean Baptiste Poux, William Servat, the wonderful Thierry Dusautoir, Jean Marc Doussain and Vincent Clerc -- were involved in the World Cup final just under a year ago, and Toulouse can also call on Florian Fritz, Yannick Jauzion, Patricio Albacete, Louis Picamole, Gary Botha and Luke McAlister, men with considerable European reputations. But they lack the edge they had in their pomp.
Possibly familiarity is at the heart of their concerns. Toulouse are the only team in the tournament to have retained their coach from day one of the Heineken Cup. Guy Noves is one of the great men of rugby, the custodian of Toulouse's reputation. Watching him prowl the touchline, or squatting on his haunches, cajoling and gesticulating, was almost as much fun as seeing his team play. His dignity and the regard in which he was held by his players was self-evident.
When Fabien Pelous, the former French and Toulouse captain, was nearing the end of his career, Noves used to usher him towards the touchline almost ruefully on the hour. There was always a handshake between the two men as Pelous left the pitch.
Yet 18 seasons is a long time to carry the flame and the Noves shrug, as the gods or the opposition plot against his team, seems less a measure of Gallic disdain, more an acknowledgement that changing the shape or rhythm of a match is no longer as easy. Toulouse, so much the heart of Europe over the years, may be in need of a fresh voice, a new direction to invigorate and harden a still fabulous club.
Leicester's challenge is to win the games that matter. Of those eight Grand Final appearances, only three have been won. The Tigers have lost the last two and this season were beaten convincingly by Harlequins at Welford Road, by some distance their toughest fixture to date. Apart from the dull draw with Saracens at Wembley, Leicester have been no better than ordinary.
The match with Toulouse is an opportunity to demonstrate that they remain one of the big beasts.
At the end of last season, as Leicester racked up bonus-point victory after bonus-point victory in the run-in to the Grand Final, it seemed as if a corner had been turned. At that stage all elements of their game were in tune. Not so now. Leicester are in plodding mode, enlivened mainly by the power of Manu Tuilagi up the middle and Vereniki Goneva out wide. Even their scrum, for so long a rallying point as well as a weapon of mass destruction, has not been as effective as usual.
The Tigers side picked for this game screams defiance but it is likely to be based on obduracy rather than fleetness of foot. A back row containing Thomas Waldrom and Jordan Crane is not the quickest. Expect a dogfight.
Both teams know how much is at stake. A point for Leicester and their campaign is up and running. For Toulouse nothing less than a victory will do. But for lovers of European rugby and followers of these two wonderful institutions, something else is on the table.
Wasps were masters of Europe once, winning the tournament in 2004 and 2007, bookending a period when they were dominant. No one talks about Wasps now. That's what happens to clubs when the fire goes out.
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