Homegrown stars pen new chapter in Toulouse lore
No team have appeared in more European Cup finals than Toulouse but after winning the last of the six, in 2010, the aristocrats of French rugby went into decline. It was slow at first, then steady, before gathering enough momentum to see them wallow in the Challenge Cup for the first time last season.
They were one place above the Top 14's relegation zone in 2017 with only the bottom club, Bayonne, having a worse attacking record. Toulouse's fall has been mirrored this season by that of another European powerhouse, Leicester. While the Tigers are still looking at how to reacquaint themselves with success, Toulouse, unbeaten in their last 14 matches in their domestic league and top of the table, did it by investing in the future.
Toulouse have invariably contained at least 10 players who have come through the club's youth system. Only one of the starting line-up against Clermont Auvergne before Christmas had not, and the four-times Champions Cup winners are playing with the swagger of old, something the French national coach, Jacques Brunel, tried to tap into during the Six Nations.
"We have shown a lot of confidence in the youngsters," says the Toulouse assistant coach Jean Bouilhou, who played in five finals for the club, while contemplating today's quarter-final against Racing 92 in Paris. "We have a young team and are still in the building phase, preparing a team for next year or the one after that. We've got a good footing and you can only create with what you have."
The vast majority of those who played for Toulouse in the six finals were French, a roll call of the leading talent in the country in the professional era. But as they were usurped by clubs such as Toulon, who spent their way to the top by plundering foreign markets, Toulouse tried to imitate them, diluting their essence.
"We believe in what we do," says Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont, one of the few players who emerged from France's Six Nations campaign in credit. "We like to play with pace and from anywhere on the field. It is easier to take risks when everyone feels the same.
"Our results this season have given us confidence and the fact we had a 100 per cent record in the Top 14 during the two international periods shows that no one is indispensable. It is all about the system we have here."
Racing have appeared in two of the last three finals of the European Cup, losing first to Saracens and then Leinster, but they were doubled by Toulouse in the league and are 20 points behind with six rounds to go.
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"A quarter-final is different," says Dupont, "even if we will play the same way. We know we are still some way off from the best in Europe and one area we are trying to improve on is being more strategic. It showed when we lost at Leinster in the group stage and it is something that comes from experience.
"The Toulouse public is very demanding and they want us to win something this season. We are fighting in the Top 14 and Europe but we are a young side that is not getting ahead of itself."
Many French clubs have had an ambivalent attitude to Europe, regarding it as a distraction from the league, but Toulouse, the inaugural Champions Cup winners, hold it in esteem.
"We loved playing in the tournament because it took us out of the daily grind of the league," says Bouilhou. "I still remember the atmosphere in the games against British and Irish teams. The matches were quicker and the level high. It is good to be back." Observer
- Racing 92 v Toulouse, BT Sport, 3.15
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