We Need to Talk About… Metuisela Talebula

Talebula

Talebula scored a wonderful try in UBB’s 31-25 win over Toulouse last weekend. (c) UBB.

Toulouse were on the attack, 30 metres from UBB’s tryline and with a 9-6 lead, when Clément Poitrenaud’s attempted offload went to ground. Talebula was onto it in a blink, toeing the ball 20 metres ahead and burning past the panicking Poitrenaud. Talebula won the race by a clear metre and gave the ball a second, more delicate touch with his left boot.

The hulking figure of Joe Tekori began looming over his shoulder, but Talebula calmly nudged the pill a third time with his right foot, by now just six metres from the Toulouse tryline. The ball struck the right-hand post, bouncing into Talebula’s expectant hands as he dived over to score.

For the ever-improving Metuisela Talebula, the outcome was never in doubt.

His close control makes sense when you learn that the 22-year-old had a spell at centre back for the football team at Drasa Secondary School in his native Lautoka, Fiji. His rugby career began with the Lautoka Crushers under-9s rugby league team, before he switched to union at the age of 16. Talebula won the Deans Trophy (Fiji’s premier schools competition) in 2009 and 2010, while also being chosen as Fiji Secondary Schools Player of the Year in ’09.

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Having already played both league and union, it was in the third rugby code that Talebula first garnered international attention. His form in sevens competitions for the Natabua Rugby Club resulted in a call-up to the Fiji squad for the IRB London and Edinburgh sevens tournaments in May 2011. Having excelled at flyhalf, Talebula was named in Fiji’s U20 squad for the Junior World Championship the following month. Playing at fullback, outhalf and centre, the Lautoka man scored three tries in four starts.

The versatile back’s name (Talebulamaijaini in full) began to get around and Clermont, through their Nadroga academy in Fiji, invited him to France to view their facilities and partake in training. Following that brief experience, Talebula decided to sign a deal with the Fijian sevens set-up for the 2011/12 season and helped them to second place in the IRB World Sevens Series. The flyhalf scored 25 tries and finished second in the individual points-scoring charts with 271.

Racing Metro tracked the Fijian intently for some time and Clermont still had interest, but Talebula eventually signed his first professional 15-a-side contract with a far less renowned club. In June 2012, his move to Union Bordeaux-Bègles was announced, with Talebula telling the Bangkok Post, “I’m still 21 and have a long way to go in my rugby career, so I have decided to play overseas as it will help me develop the way I play. The level of competition there will make me a better rugby player.”

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Earlier in the same month, the 6ft 1ins pace merchant had made a sensational start to his senior international career, scoring three tries in two appearances against Tonga and Scotland. Lining out at fullback, Talebula displayed the explosive running style and awareness that would make him such a success in France. Three more starts at fullback have followed for Fiji against England, Ireland and Georgia last November. There are many more caps to come.

Talebula’s first season with UBB was undoubtedly positive. Language and other cultural adjustments were mirrored by a bedding-in period on the pitch but after scoring in his seventh appearance the Fijian didn’t look back, ending the season with eight tries. Talebula mainly played on the wing, although he did start thrice at fullback. UBB’s backs coach Vincent Etcheto sees his future at outside centre.

Despite a physically taxing first season with Bordeaux, Talebula decided to join the Fiji squad for the Rugby World Cup Sevens in June. Reinstalled at flyhalf, he was the tournament’s top try-scorer with seven in six games, as Fiji finished in third place. Talebula’s sevens background and his positional versatility point to the rounded skill set he has developed.

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Many Fijian backs are pure finishers, with Napolioni Nalaga a fine example. While Talebula is certainly lethal close to the tryline, there is more to his game. His kicking skills are complemented by excellent offloading ability and piercing vision. Defensively, he does not shirk responsibility and will only improve in this area as his French does too. Timid off the pitch, Talebula must work on his communication during games.

The year in France has seen the 22-year-old become more efficient athletically. Talebula has filled out to nearly 100kg but has retained his natural leanness. He always had speed but now his stride is that of a sprinter’s, streamlined and methodical. Ludovic Loustau, UBB’s préparateur physique, has taken Talebula’s raw physical potential and begun to shape it into something even more potent. The Fijian’s attitude and hard work have been to key to progress.

Upon joining UBB, the Lautoka native signed a two-year espoir contract (similar to a development contract). That deal expires next June and the likes of Toulouse, Clermont, Toulon and Leicester have already cast lustful glances in Talebula’s direction. However, his agent Frédéric Bonhomme told Midi Olympique that the Fijian is “attached to Bordeaux-Bègles and likes the atmosphere there. He knows it’s not a small club. It’s a club of great potential. Extending [his contract] is a genuine option.”

If UBB can uphold the standard they set against Toulouse last weekend, Talebula may consider staying. However, the graceful Fijian will be ready for bigger things by next season and the money men will come calling. UBB’s supporters should appreciate the Talebula show before it moves on.

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Photo: UBB.

Jonny Sexton Debut Analysis

RogSexton

“Just kick the f*ckin’ thing, will ya?”

While his debut for Racing Metro was not a flawless affair, there were enough positives in what Jonny Sexton did to offer encouragement for the season ahead. The 28-year-old was as sharp as ever in attack but will be disappointed with his place-kicking and one defensive error. Racing finished 19-14 winners in their relocated home fixture at the Stade Marcel Deflandre in La Rochelle.

In a Racing side that is clearly still in the process of getting accustomed to playing together, Sexton was excellent in possession. The Lions outhalf took the ball to the line as threateningly as usual, asking questions of the Brive defence before passing to forward runners inside and outside. He also carried the ball himself on occasion and looked strong in contact. Sexton’s habit of running with the pill in two hands at all times was unsettling for Brive’s defence, who were unsure which option the Irish man was going to take.

Jamie Roberts is still rehabilitating the hamstring injury he picked up while playing for the Lions this summer, but the sooner he is back the better for Sexton. While Fabrice Estebanez and Henry Chavancy are both good centres, they are not yet comfortable with Sexton. At times against Brive, the outhalf was screaming out for a centre to come steaming down outside him on a direct line. Estebanez and Chavancy will begin to recognise the cues in Sexton’s attacking body language with more regularity as they play together more often, but Roberts would definitely help at this early stage.

RacingTry

Click the pic to enlarge. Top left) Sexton lines up the kick in behind Namy. Top right) the ball bounces but the back spin takes it over Vakatawa. Bottom left) Lepeyre follows up to claim possession. Bottom right) And scores under the posts.

Racing enjoyed the better of the opening exchanges, with scrumhalf Maxime Machenaud’s powerful sniping making particular gains. From one such scurry the Parisians got onto the front foot and a phase later, Sexton took a smart linking pass from flanker Antoine Battut. Faced by a Brive defence rushing up, Sexton stroked a perfectly weighted diagonal kick out to the left, in behind Guillaume Namy. Racing wing Virimi Vakatawa had read the play but a high bounce of the ball went over his head. However, fullback Benjamin Lepeyre had followed up and he gathered to score.

That impressive contribution was part of a superb kicking game from Sexton. Clearing out of Racing’s 22, the outhalf managed to get thumping distance on his touch-finders, admittedly aided by a breeze. Sexton’s contact with the ball was superb and it was encouraging to see him striking spirals with such confidence.

In defence, Sexton was solid, although he did make an error for Brive’s try. After Racing had been split up the middle, they managed to scramble and get themselves into a decent defensive position in their own 22. When Brive moved the ball wide to the left, Sexton, the last defender, shot out of the line but failed to take man and ball. That allowed lock Julien Ledevedec to get in behind Sexton and give the scoring pass to winger Elia Radikedike. While it was not an ideal defensive position to be in, Sexton could have done better.

BriveTry

Click to enlarge. Top left) Brive move the ball out to the left and Sexton shoots up. Top right) Sexton buys Ledevedec’s dummy and doesn’t go for the hit. Bottom left) Ledevedec gets in behind Sexton and draws Szarzewski. Bottom right) The lock passes for Radikedike to run in unopposed.

Saturday wasn’t Sexton’s best day from the tee. Three from six won’t have been satisfactory for the outhalf, who demands so much of himself. The three missed kicks were certainly within his usual capabilities. After converting Lepeyre’s try from under the posts and then scoring from a penalty in a similar position, Sexton missed two penalties before half time. The first was from 45 metres out but directly in front of the uprights, while the second was 10 metres closer but at a similar angle.

In the 50th minute, Sexton converted an easy effort from underneath the sticks but two minutes later missed with a 40 metre effort, once again from a central position. That was the Irishman’s last major contribution to the game as he was replaced by Jonathan Wisniewski five minutes later. Racing’s reliable French outhalf kicked two penalties from two to close out the win for Racing in what was a poor spectacle overall.

There were many encouraging aspects to Jonny Sexton’s first game in a Racing shirt, but he will need to take every single point on offer against Toulon on Friday night.

Top 14 Club-by-Club Guide

Top 14

The Top 14 is back, with Montpellier vs. Toulon tonight.

The Top 14 gets underway this weekend, and over the last number of weeks The Touchline has featured a guide to each of the clubs. Those guides are laid out below for your convenience. The level of recruitment this summer has been phenomenal and this should be the most competitive Top 14 campaign in history, at both ends of the table. Feel free to post your predictions for the season in the comments section at the bottom of the page.

RCTToulon

ASMClermont

STToulouse

RMRacing Metro

MHRMontpellier

USAPPerpignan

SFPStade Français

COCastres

ABBayonne

FCGGrenoble

UBBBordeaux

BOBiarritz

USOOyonnax

CABBrive

Top 14 Preview: Clermont

25924The History

Association Sportive Montferrandaise Clermont Auvergne was launched in 1911 by Marcel Michelin, son of André, who founded the Michelin tyre company. The club was intended to provide entertainment for the many workers employed by the organisation. Their story since has been littered with near-misses. ASM did enjoy success in the Challenge Yves du Manoir and Challenge Cup, but they finished runners-up in the French championship ten times before finally winning in 2010.

In the Heineken Cup, Clermont have lost a final, semi-final and a quarter-final in recent years. The common perception is that ASM lack the mental edge to win big games, but their 2010 success has been quickly forgotten. In that same time frame, Toulon have lost four finals and won one trophy, but not once has their winning mentality been questioned. Of course it is the manner of Clermont’s defeats which see them labelled as ‘bottlers’ too, but they will continue to challenge for titles.

The Setting

The city of Clermont-Ferrand sits in the Auvergne region of central France, with a population of 141,000. While it is an industrial area, the city has a growing student population of 30,000 and Clermont’s supporters are amongst the friendliest in the world. The Stade Marcel-Michelin is ASM’s home, with space for 18,030 people. With the stands almost leaning over the pitch, the atmosphere is never anything less than fervent. ASM hold a French record of 60 consecutive victories at home, they simply don’t do losses at the Stade Marcel-Michelin.

Last Season

ASM v LR

Two superb wins over Leinster have been forgotten amidst Clermont’s end-of-season failure. (c) Andy Patterson.

The campaign promised so much as Clermont played scintillating rugby throughout the season. Top try-scorers by 12 in the Top 14, Vern Cotter’s side topped the regular season table. In the Heineken Cup their 31 tries were unmatched, and they looked like champions-to-be. Everything came unstuck on the home straight though, with the loss to Toulon in the H Cup final followed by a pitiful effort against Castres in the Top 14 semi-final. Flanker Julien Bonnaire summed it up in simple terms: “Let’s call a cat a cat. Last season was a failure. Now we must redeem ourselves.”

Ambitions

ASM approach this season in a strange state following Cotter’s frank criticism of the players and the club’s recruitment policy in the aftermath of the failed season. The New Zealander has agreed to join Scotland at the end of this season, and the impression was that he was attempting to get himself released early by speaking out. However, bridges have apparently been rebuilt and Clermont are focused on winning a trophy. They have the squad to compete on two fronts, but the truly burning desire is Heineken Cup success.

While they have shown a strong tendency to lose high-pressure play-off games, writing Clermont off before the season has even started would be foolish.

The Coach

Bouclier de B.

Cotter is hoping for more days like this one in 2010. (c) Ville de Clermont-Ferrand.

Cotter is a former number eight who played for Counties Manukau as well as four French clubs. His coaching career took in Bay of Plenty and the Crusaders (as forwards coach where he won Super Rugby titles in ’05 and ’06) before Clermont made him head coach for the ’06/07 season. ASM lost the next three Top 14 finals before finally earning a Bouclier de Brennus in 2010. Cotter is as hard-nosed as you would expect from a Kiwi back-row but also encourages his players to offload and attack from their own half.

Cotter’s challenge this season is to ensure that Clermont are better equipped for knock-out games. The sheer quality in their squad means they will feature in the latter stages of both competitions. Pre season at ASM has focused on decision making, demanding that the players work through their options in various match specific scenarios. Cotter told Midi Olympique that ASM “need be capable of better adapting to the context, and if we must, making our plans simpler and more pragmatic.”

Transfer Activity

Clermont were the quietest Top 14 club in terms of transfers this summer, with just three new faces. Having originally agreed a deal to join in June, Mike Delany was drafted in late last season on a medical joker basis and greatly impressed in three starts. Unfortunately, the one-time All Black outhalf has had to undergo shoulder surgery and will miss the opening three months of the season. That meant Clermont had to search for another outhalf, with the experienced Gavin Hume the result.

The 33-year-old South African spent the last nine seasons with USAP, winning a Top 14 title in 2009. Hume has been sharp for ASM in pre season and offers solid back-up to Brock James. The only other addition is scrumhalf Thierry Lacrampe (25) from Castres, who will compete with Ludovic Radosavljevic for a place on the bench behind Morgan Parra. Familiar names leaving Clermont include David Skrela, who drops into the Pro D2 with Colomiers, and Anthony Floch, who joins Montpellier in search of game time.

Key Players

Wesley Fofana is amongst the best centres in world rugby and probably Clermont’s greatest asset. The 25-year-old runs perceptive lines and aided by sizzling pace and a violent fend, the French international is a nightmare for opposition defences. his ability to pick out weak defenders in the defensive line is unrivaled.  While Fofana’s passing game still has some way to go, he is an attacking threat from any situation. Alongside him is captain Aurélien Rougerie, a one-club man and a passionate leader.

Wingers Sitiveni Sivivatu and Napolioni Nalaga provide a guaranteed supply of tries. Sivivatu was exceptional last season, roaming into midfield and often taking the ball as first receiver. The former All Black has the footwork and power to beat tackles every time he touches the ball. Nalaga is more of a direct proposition, but he is near to unstoppable from close range. In between them, Clermont have the luxury of choosing between Lee Byrne’s kicking game and experience or Jean-Marcellin Buttin’s languid, creative brilliance.

James

Brock James has been the focus of much of the criticism aimed at ASM. (c) Frank Nieto.

Morgan Parra is the archetypal French scrumhalf, directing his forwards, place-kicking and strutting around when he is in control. After ending the season in very poor form, the 24-year-old decided not to tour with France this summer and will benefit from a full pre season schedule. Joining him in the halfback charnière is Brock James, the much maligned Australian. His famous incidences of big-game failure make him an obvious target, but at his best James is a superb outhalf.

Julien Bonnaire remains crucial at the age of 34 through his lineout excellence, work-rate and leadership. Alongside him, number eight Damian Chouly is a strong ball carrier but needs to become more prominent in the high-stake games.

Irish Connection

In a giant tight five featuring French internationals Thomas Domingo and Benjamin Kayser, the key man is Scottish international Nathan Hines. He was certainly among the best locks in Europe last season and would have added greatly to the Lions tour. At 36, the body has started to feel the knocks that little bit more, but Hines never gives anything less than total commitment. Smashing rucks, winning lineouts and shoving at scrum time are the norm for any lock, but what sets Hines apart is his superb handling and passing ability.

Possible Starting XV

15. Byrne/Buttin, 14. Sivivatu, 13. Rougerie, 12. Fofana, 11. Nalaga, 10. James, 9. Parra, 8. Chouly, 7. Vosloo/Lapandry, 6. Bonnaire, 5. Hines, 4. Cudmore, 3. Zirakashvili, 2. Kayser 1. Domingo

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Photos: Andy Patterson, Ville de Clermont-Ferrand, Frank Nieto.

Top 14 Preview: Toulon

logo_rctThe History

Rugby Club Toulonnais was founded in 1908, with their first Bouclier de Brennus coming in 1931 after a 6-3 win over Lyon. The victorious team were greeted by 30,000 supporters on their return to Toulon, before a riotous night of celebration. It was 57 years before RCT had the opportunity to repeat the party, when a 15-12 win over Racing gave them their second French championship in 1987. The success was repeated in ’92, with two drop-goals from Yann Delaigue helping Toulon to their most recent league title.

The summer of 2000 saw RCT relegated to the second division due to a reported €1.5 million deficit in their accounts. In 2005, Toulon were promoted as champions of the Pro D2 but were relegated the following season. Mourad Boudjellal, who made his fortune in comic books, was subsequently elected as president and orchestrated the first wave of high-profile recruitment. Since promotion in 2008, Toulon have lost four finals (two Top 14s, two Challenge Cups) but last season’s Heineken Cup victory was just reward for Boudjellal’s passion.

The Setting

Toulon is situated on the Mediterranean coast in southwestern France and has a population of around 170,000. With sunshine all year, delicious food and a laid-back way of life, it is the ideal place for older professionals to eke more years out of their careers. Toulon’s home stadium is the Stade Mayol, which holds 15,100 loud supporters. RCT are famous for their pre-match Pilou Pilou war chant as the players come onto the field. It’s a special atmosphere and an intimidating arena.

Last Season

ST v RCT

Toulon’s powerful pack played a huge role in their H Cup success. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Bernard Laporte’s men topped the regular season from round four all the way to round 24, before Clermont finished the stronger in the final two games. That meant Toulon drew Toulouse in the semi-final, where they dispatched Guy Novès’ side 24-9. However, the final was one step too far for RCT as a fresher Castres deservedly won. The fact that Toulon had already won a first-ever Heineken Cup two weeks before made the loss easier to accept. The H Cup success was Toulon’s first trophy under Boudjellal, and probably the first of many.

Ambitions

Having won in Europe, les Toulonnais now have their sights set on domestic success. Boudjellal and most of the club’s dirigeants are keen to assert their dominance over the Top 14. By adding to Toulon’s existing base of stars this summer, Boudjellal has provided Laporte with all the tools he needs to compete for both trophies this season. Toulon’s squad is bursting with proven winners, as well as previously unseen levels of experience. Boudjellal continues to pose Toulon as underdogs to Toulouse and Clermont in public, but privately he knows RCT are out in front.

The Coach

Bernard Laporte’s official title of Sporting Director is apt for describing his role. The former scrumhalf won a French championship with Bordeaux in 1991 before moving into coaching with the same club. In 1995, he dropped down to the third division to join Stade Français and backed by Max Guazzini’s millions, remarkably led the Parisians to a French championship in 1998. Two years later he took charge of the national side, the first head coach of les Blues who hadn’t been capped himself.

Laporte

Laporte is an intelligent leader. (c) Philippe Marc.

In seven years with Laporte at the helm France won four Six Nations titles, two of them Grand Slams. Following the semi-final loss to England at the 2007 World Cup, Laporte resigned. After administrative roles with the French government, Bayonne and Stade Français, Laporte took over at Toulon in 2011. The 49-year-old leaves the coaching to Jacques Delmas (forwards) and Pierre Mignoni (backs), but he is the selector, motivator and public face of the team.

Transfer Activity

Just when it looked like Toulon’s squad couldn’t get any more experienced, they signed Bryan Habana, Drew Mitchell, Ali Williams and Martin Castrogiovanni. Habana and Mitchell add world-class finishing ability to a squad which already included four excellent wingers. While Toulon do approach knock-out games with less attacking ambition, they generally play with an open style of rugby, highlighted by 69 tries in the Top 14 last season. That means Habana and Mitchell will get their hands on the ball often, while both are also excellent kick chasers.

New Zealander Williams replaces the excellent Nick Kennedy, and his partnership with Bakkies Botha should be formidable. Both proven winners, it’s a pairing that opposition second rows will relish challenging. Italian cult hero Castrogiovanni’s rotation with Carl Hayman at tighthead will be important under the fatiguing new scrum laws. The other additions are scrumhalf Michael Claassens (30), who has impressed in pre season, and loosehead prop Emmanuel Felsina (28), who was playing in Fédérale 1 as recently as 2011 but is highly-rated.

Key Players

Wilko

A true Toulonnais. (c) Noëmie Haffner.

Jonny Wilkinson enjoys the status of a deity in the Var département, and deservedly so. Any foreign player looking for an example of how to integrate into French life need look no further than the former England outhalf. Once plagued by injuries, the 34-year-old had started 104 games for RCT since joining in 2009. Outside Wilko, Aussie centre Matt Giteau does much of the playmaking and his passing and vision are crucial to the Toulon backline.

Another Englishman who has adapted to life at Toulon with success is Andrew Sheridan, selected as the best prop in France by Midi Olympique. Anyone who watched the 33-year-old last season would have been surprised not to see him involved with the Lions, but Sheridan is perfectly content with life in Toulon. At lock, Bakkies Botha had a phenomenal season as he established himself as the premier lock in the Top 14. While he has had inexcusable moments of ill-discipline in the past, the donkey work he does cannot be underestimated.

In the back row, the classy skills of Juan Martín Fernández Lobbe are inspirational. Picking out strengths is a difficult task because the Argentine captain is so complete. While he attends to the Rugby Championship, Steffon Armitage will look to step up. Having been the standout player of the 2011/12 Top 14 campaign, the explosive 27-year-old had to take a back seat on Toulon’s journey to the Heineken Cup trophy last season. Chris Masoe’s power from number eight is another crucial part of Toulon’s set-up.

Equipe du RC Toulon

RCT. (c) Yann Caradec.

This RCT squad is stacked with ability, experience, aggression, power and depth. While it has become popular to dislike the club and question their style of play, that only aids their mental strength. The puppet master Boudjellal is a genius at drawing the pressure towards himself and allowing the players to focus on winning. It’s an intelligent formula and could lead to Toulon’s first French title in over 20 years.

Possible Starting XV

15. Armitage, 14. Mitchell, 13. Bastareaud, 12. Giteau, 11. Habana, 10. Wilkinson, 9. Michalak, 8. Masoe, 7. Armitage, 6. Fernandez Lobbe, 5. Williams, 4. Botha, 3. Hayman, 2. Bruno, 1. Sheridan

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Photos: Pierre-Selim, Philippe Marc, Noëmie Haffner, Yann Caradec.

The Touchline’s Top 14 Competition

Setanta

Setanta Sports

The time people take to read, share and interact with everything here on The Touchline is much appreciated, and with that in mind it’s time to give something back. In a first for this site, it’s competition time. The prize is a one-year subscription to the Setanta Sports pack, which gives you access to Setanta’s own channels, BT Sport and ESPN too.

The new Setanta Sports package will include two live Top 14 games every weekend, as well as the Aviva Premiership, so this is a good one for all the rugby fanatics out there. The coverage starts on Friday evening with the Top 14 opener between Montpellier and Toulon.

NB. This competition is only open to satellite customers.

So how do you enter? It’s simple: Just complete the following sentence in the comments section below and don’t forget to leave your email address so that you can be contacted if you win. Get creative with this one. The winner will be picked at midnight tomorrow.

Finish this sentence: The best thing about French rugby is…

Top 14 Preview: Toulouse

Toulouse_badgeThe History

With 19 French championships and five Heineken Cups to their name, Stade Toulousain are perhaps the greatest club in rugby history. Having won the first edition of the Heineken Cup in 1996, Toulouse have been involved every year since. In the last six seasons, they have won three French titles and a H Cup. Toulouse have been involved in the last 20 French championship semi-finals. The longevity of their success is phenomenal, and the club plans to persist.

In February 2013 the club opened a state-of-the-art training facility, fully kitted out with gym, video analysis room, recovery areas and much more. The new training centre allows Toulouse to focus on their commitment to developing French players from within. Toulouse are also an integral part of plans to build a ‘Cité du Rugby’ (an interactive museum of world rugby) on the island of Ramier near the centre of the city. With a budget of €35.4 million, Stade Toulousain are still the biggest club in France.

The Setting

The city of Toulouse lies in the Midi-Pyrénées region in the south of France. With a population of over 440,000 la ville rose is the fourth-largest city in the country. Stade Toulousain’s home is the 19,500-capacity Stade Ernest-Wallon. In recent years, the big games have been moved to the 36,000-capacity Stadium Municipal de Toulouse (also on on Ramier Island), but refurbishment for Euro 2016 means the club won’t have access until late 2015, a blow to revenue.

Last Season

Arrière, c'est aussi joué tout seul

Clément Poitrenaud, with the Toulouse forwards in the background. (c) Pierre-Selim.

Toulouse finished the regular season table in third, but were a disappointing 11 points behind second-placed Toulon. That gave Guy Novès’ men a home barrages match, where they dealt with Racing Metro. The semi-final loss to Toulon that followed was crushing for Novès, who questioned the club’s direction and recruitment policy in the aftermath. Toulouse looked threatening, but Toulon’s ability to score points was the only aspect of the game that mattered.

In the Heineken Cup, Toulouse failed to advance from the group stages for the first time since 2007. After dropping into the Challenge Cup, a weakened team was downed by USAP.

Ambitions

After such an unsatisfactory campaign, Toulouse are focused on winning the Top 14. While a Heineken Cup success would be welcome, it is domestically that les Toulousains will concentrate. That focus has seen a slight shift in policy at a club famed for its strong “made in France” playing core. With the doublons (games on the same weekends as international fixtures) still a challenging feature of the Top 14, Novès’ transfer policy this summer was centered on “foreigners of top-quality”. Toulouse lost to Agen (away), USAP (home) and Toulon (away) during the Six Nations last season. Noves is hoping that won’t be repeated.

The Coach

Guy Noves

This man is Stade Toulousain. (c) chris_3164.

Born in Toulouse, 259 appearances on the wing for Stade Toulousain and the club’s coach since 1988 in which time he has won 10 French championships and four Heineken Cups; if ever a club was intrinsically tied up with an individual, it is Toulouse with Guy Novès. Searingly intelligent, irrationally angry, optimistic and despairing in differing circumstances, the 59-year-old’s passion for the club is inspirational. There was an unsettling sense that Novès was tiring of the constant challenge last season, a feeling that Toulouse are a force in decline.

However, Novès insists he is ready for the new season, refreshed and motivated. He has called on his French internationals in particular to step up and be counted in the Top 14. Whenever he does decide to retire, it is likely that Novès will finish on a winning note, leaving by the back door without fuss.

Transfer Activity

Capped 14 times for the All Blacks, Hosea Gear is exactly the type of signing Novès wanted. The 29-year-old wing is a powerful finisher coming off the back of a Super Rugby season in which he scored eight tries for the Hurricanes. With Vincent Clerc being nursed back from a knee injury, Gear’s impact will be crucial. Springbok Chiliboy Ralepelle is another big-name addition, although the hooker will only arrive in October after the Rugby Championship. William Servat will hope to retire properly this season.

Hosea Gear

Gear adds explosive strength out wide. (c) Patrick Subotkiewiez.

Another new signing delayed until October is Jano Vermaak (28). The South African scrumhalf joins from the Bulls to provide competition for Jean-Marc Doussain. Completing the quartet of new top-class foreigners is Joe Tekori, moving from Castres. The explosive Samoan’s ability to cover lock and the back-row will be useful. Novès has brought in two French players in creative outhalf Jean-Pascal Barraque (22) from Biarritz and the athletic flanker Yacouba Camara (19) from Massy. Both are excellent prospects.

Key Players

Thierry Dusautoir is captain and one of the greatest leaders by example. His work-rate in defence often overshadows the excellent work The Dark Destroyer does in attack, freeing up others to do what they do best. Louis Picamoles appreciates the opportunity to carry as often as possible, and at 27 is hitting his prime. The France number eight is simply very difficult to tackle. His powerful hand-off is matched by a high degree of strength in the hips and legs, making low tackles no guarantee. The more he sees of the ball, the better Toulouse are.

Luke McAlister is the premier outhalf in France at his best, but there are days when you have to wonder if he is an outhalf at all. His powerful running can tear teams to shreds, but it is his ability to direct play around the pitch that provides doubts. If Toulouse are going to win the Top 14, McAlister needs a good season. In the centre, Gaël Fickou faces the task of replacing the retired Yannick Jauzion. Still only 19, Fickou has a different style but possesses all the skills needed to make himself the best centre in the league over the next three years.

Essai de Fickou

Fickou must replace a legend of the club in Yannick Jauzion. (c) Pierre-Selim.

In the engine room, the likes of Yoann Maestri, Romain Millo-Chluski, Census Johnston and Gurthrö Steenkamp will be busy getting their hands dirty. At close to 140kg, Johnston is a man mountain but he can play a bit too. At loosehead, Steenkamp will miss the opening rounds due to the Rugby Championship. Maestri is one of the most complete locks in France at 25, while Millo-Chluski (30) and Patricio Albacete do the unglamorous work. Out wide, the likes of Yoann Huget and Clément Poitrenaud offer a suave counter-attacking threat.

Irish Connection

While he’s not strictly involved with Toulouse any longer, Trevor Brennan maintains strong ties with the club. The two-time Heineken Cup winner runs the De Danú bar in Toulouse, which is a must-visit on any rugby trip to la ville rose. There is still a Brennan on the books at Stade Toulousain, in the former Ireland lock’s 14-year-old son Daniel. Already the focus of a Midi Olympique article, the 6ft 2ins, 121kg prop says he would consider playing for France if the opportunity arose. One for the future as Toulouse look to return to the summit of French club rugby.

Possible Starting XV

15. Huget 14. Matanavou, 13. Fritz, 12. Fickou, 11. Gear, 10. McAlister, 9. Doussain, 8. Picamoles, 7. Nyanga, 6. Dusautoir, 5. Maestri, 4. Albacete, 3. Johnston, 2. Ralepelle, 1. Steenkamp

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Photos: Pierre-Selim, chris_3164, Patrick Subotkiewiez.