Saturday 25 May 2019

Alan Quinlan: 'Renaissance of French giants has been impressive but today we will find out where they really stand'


Rising star: Romain Ntamack of Toulouse. Photo: Pascal Pavani/Getty Images
Rising star: Romain Ntamack of Toulouse. Photo: Pascal Pavani/Getty Images

Expert Verdict: Alan Quinlan

In the grand scheme of sporting revivals, Toulouse supporters appear to have gotten off relatively lightly; the doldrums have passed and one of the world's most esteemed clubs are nearly back to where they feel they belong.

Toulouse brought silverware back to the south of France as recently as 2012 but for a club and fan-base so accustomed to accolades and high praise, for their supremacy and style, the past six seasons have been difficult to stomach.

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The recent renaissance of heart-racing, expressive rugby has restored the joie de vivre in a city whose pulse is inextricably linked to the fortunes of its rugby team.

And, more to the point, it's been done 'the Toulouse way'.

They are striving to return to the glory days; when Toulouse were seen as the All Blacks of the club game such was the awe in which they were held.

In 1996, with the Heineken Cup in its infancy, Toulouse, as reigning champions of the inaugural tournament, illustrated the chasm between Irish and French club rugby with a 60-19 demolition of Munster, psychologically scarring many of the men I would play alongside in the years that followed.

Rivalries hadn't even begun yet. Sides were still feeling each other out. But no one could lay a glove on Toulouse back then, particularly in France.

In time that changed, and in 2000 Munster were in Bordeaux to face them in the semi-final.

We were massive underdogs - they were heavy favourites to win the whole thing outright for a second time, with Llanelli and Northampton on the other side of the draw.

We arrived at Stade Lescure on the Friday for our captain's run to find that our opponents had gone over their allotted time.

Perfectly preened and in matching, fitted gear, they must have seen their opponents as a ragtag bunch of merry Irishmen, our mix-and-match T-shirts hanging off us.

I couldn't believe the sheer size of them. But that Munster team had a fearlessness about it, and despite the odds facing us we managed to get the better of them in a 31-25 thriller.

Thaty 2008 Cup final was, without doubt, one of the proudest days of my entire career and whether they like it or not, Toulouse played a big part in that - a team which was backboned by the likes of Fabien Pelous, William Servat, and Jean Bouilhou.

The current crop are paying homage to those forebears of the 1990s and 2000s, the continental kingpins who set the standard for the club game as it moved into the professional era.

And the fingerprints of the old guard - former players Ugo Mola and Regis Sonnes, Servat, Bouilhou, Clement Poitrenaud, Emile Ntamack, Pelous, Jerome Cazalbou and Didier Lacroix are heavily involved in the club - are smudged all over the 2018/'19 edition.

Mola succeeded Guy Noves, a fellow former Toulouse winger, in 2015 as head coach when the latter got the France international gig, and after a ropey start to his tenure - including a 12th-place Top 14 finish in 2016/2017 - and an embarrassing 41-16 Champions Cup quarter-final exit in Thomond Park that same season, the French giants are striking fear into opponents once again.

After that heavy loss in Limerick many felt it was time for another change at the top, that it was the ideal opportunity to bring in some fresh ideas after 24 years of coaching direction from former Toulouse wingers.

Toulouse stood by Mola though, allowing him to shape the club his way, on and off the field, overseeing a transition that saw them lose the likes of Thierry Dusatoir and Florian Fritz to retirement, while France internationals like Gael Fickou and Yoann Maestri headed for pastures new.

The club put their trust in the next generation of talent - literally, in the case of the Ntamack family - and Mola, and their faith and patience has been rewarded.

A leap to third spot in the Top 14 last season, without the distraction of the Champions Cup, was a great mark of progress, and this campaign has seen them raise their game another notch.

They have a backline that thrives in broken-field running, making analysis very difficult for opponents, and their pack is able to match anyone in the close exchanges and the set-piece.

There is also a healthy balance between youth and experience - Romain Ntamack (19), Antoine Dupont (22), Thomas Ramos (23) and Cheslin Kolbe (25) are four of the brightest young backs in the game and they have been helped no end by the guiding presences of Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard - the latter is still only 32 but played on the wing in that 2008 final in the Millennium Stadium.

Up front, hooker Julien Marchand will be a prominent name for many years to come - you don't get made club captain at 23 without being a really special talent.

It is quite an environment for a young leader to learn his trade too, with former Italy captain Leonardo Ghiraldini regularly his understudy at No 2, and New Zealand World Cup winners Charlie Faumuina and Jerome Kaino adding valuable experience and different ideas to the dressing-room.

Toulouse play with a relentless high tempo - Mola and Sonnes, who was appointed joint head coach at the start of this season, have made fitness a priority which means, unlike many other French teams, you won't necessarily tire them out by racking up the phases.

Their counter-attacking instincts make them a thrilling team to watch and the Toulouse public are responding too - home attendances are heading back in the right direction, arresting a worrying trend which had seen crowd numbers drop.

They have shown on the domestic scene in recent weeks that they have a resilience to match their ruthlessness too, following a stunning 39-0 dismantling of Toulon with a gutsy 20-20 draw at league leaders Clermont, having been 14 points in arrears at one point.

To put some context into that latter performance, it was the first time this season that Clermont didn't bulldoze their way to the maximum five points in a Stade Marcel-Michelin Top 14 fixture.

Their performances have been recognised on a national level too, with Toulouse's seven representatives in Jacques Brunel's Six Nations training squad leading the way.

Ntamack, Ramos, Dupont and Marchand are part of the French vision too, especially with a home Rugby World Cup, and the added pressure that brings to perform, just over four years away.

Today, though, this Toulouse side face an altogether different test. The RDS is one of the toughest places to go in Europe but considering the enforced absences of Johnny Sexton, James Lowe, Robbie Henshaw, Rob Kearney, Dan Leavy and Devin Toner, this should be seen as an opportunity.

From a Leinster point of view, it's a massive day for Ross Byrne in terms of his season as a provincial and international player, but the out-half is up to the challenge.

Leinster need to kick cleverly, prevent Toulouse from getting their offloading game going, and limit their counter-attacking opportunities.

Toulouse got in Leinster's faces in the reverse fixture, showing impressive linespeed, so Byrne will need to be sharp and efficient in his decision making.

With 5ft 7in Kolbe guarding one of the wings you would expect Leinster to use the cross-field kick, a tactic that has served them well, when the opportunity presents itself. My gut tells me that Leinster will have enough, but they certainly won't have it all their own way.

A mighty showdown between two European giants is on the cards, with the potential to deliver tremors right across the competition.

We know Toulouse are on their way back. Today we will find out if they have already arrived.

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