The decline and fall of Toulouse
Don’t blame coach Ugo Mola for Toulouse’s failings this season. After 22 years of Guy Novès, change was needed – but off-field issues mean we should expect an evolution rather than a revolution, writes James Harrington.
A gut-wrenching home defeat to Racing 92 on the 24th weekend of the ferociously long Top 14 campaign summed up more than just, to steal a phrase from coach Ugo Mola, Toulouse’s ‘black season’.
It encapsulated perfectly the decline and fall of a French rugby giant.
Toulouse dominated possession and territory at the weekend. For long periods, they pounded Racing’s line. They could, and should, have scored a sackful but repeatedly demonstrated incredible precision and accuracy for shooting themselves in the foot.
They did not cross the whitewash until the 79th minute, when they were 3-10 behind with Racing reduced to 13 men. And Luke McAlister could not convert the difficult kick from out wide to level the scores.
There was time for one final restart, but Toulouse horlicksed the play and barely made it out of their own 22 before conceding a penalty to end the game – and their season.
It leaves the club 12th in the Top 14. They will miss the French Championship playoffs for the first time since 1976 – long before the dawn of professionalism. For the first time ever, they will not feature in the draw for next season’s European Champions Cup.
Toulouse are a shadow of the side that lifted nine French Championship titles and four European Cups in the golden Guy Novès years, before he finally left at the end of the 2014/15 season to prepare to become France coach – nearly a decade too late.
During Novès 22-year reign, Toulouse were also two-time runners-up in both domestic and European competitions. The figures speak for themselves: Novès is the most successful domestic coach in rugby history.
But the signs of decay were evident before he left. The club has not won a title or reached a single final since 2012. It is by far their longest run without silverware or even taking part in a showpiece match in the professional era.
In many ways, Mola – a Toulouse player between 1990 and 1996 – has much of the spiky Novès about him. He prowls the touchline, barely able to stand still, shouts and gesticulates, expressions forever bouncing across his face like a bad poker player. Unlike his predecessor, however, he does not have the knack of winning matches by sheer force of mannerisms.
And, unlike his predecessor, he has to redefine what it means to be Toulouse. Novès had an Alex Ferguson – or maybe, increasingly, an Arsène Wenger – aura about him. His way was the Toulouse way. His early innovation had become old hat, borrowed and stolen and improved upon by others. Success was as much about will as ability. Players were comfortable – too comfortable, perhaps. The club was stale, out of touch, desperate for change.
So far, Mola has struggled to impose his vision on a team that he inherited. And, for reasons beyond his control, has been unable to do anything about.
His appointment in 2015 was described as a ‘continuation’ of the Toulouse way when, maybe, a break from tradition – even, whisper it quietly, a foreign coach with foreign ideas – was required.
But the club could not afford to make that break. Toulouse may have the largest operating budget of any Top 14 club – €31.5million this season, compared to €18.2million for league leaders La Rochelle – but euros are in short supply at Ernest Wallon.
Mola has said the squad needs overhauling, but personnel changes have been few so far during his tenure. There’s a reason for that. For the past four seasons, the club has been in the red – and it does not have a sugar daddy like Racing 92’s Jacky Lorenzetti or Montpellier’s Mohed Altrad to sign the bailout cheque. So far, there has been enough in the bank to cover the shortfall, but the club is now said to be ‘seriously’ short of funds.
The €97-million-a-season Top 14 TV deal that kicks in from the end of next season will help top up Toulouse’s bank balance, but failing to reach the playoffs and missing out on the Champions Cup cash cow is a massive blow to the club and Mola.
Vincent Clerc left after 14 years and more than 300 appearances last season. At least 12 more key players will leave this summer, including Census Johnston, Luke McAlister, Toby Flood, Christopher Tolofua and Yacouba Camara.
Attracting players has proved as difficult as retaining them. Facundo Isa was linked to Toulouse but finally opted for Toulon, and those names heading to the Rose City are a long way from the ones that graced the club in the late 1990s.
Next season Charlie Faumuina, Lucas Pointud, Zack Holmes, Cheslin Kolbe and Antoine Dupont are the biggest names on Toulouse’s arrivals list. Compare them to Émile Ntamack, Thomas Castaignède, Michel Marfaing, and Freddie Michalak – players who graced the rouge-et-noir with their mesmeric skills in years gone by.
So, Mola’s hands are tied. But, if he can hold on to his job – which is far from certain – the future may not be entirely bleak. He can’t buy change, so he will have to make it. As well as securing 20-year-old tyro Dupont from Castres, he has persuaded seven young players to re-sign development contracts – including a certain Romain N’Tamack, whose name may sound familiar.
Director of rugby Fabien Pelous – another name on Toulouse’s Hall of Fame – has said Mola will be retained as head coach next season. But, an additional spanner in Mola’s would-be works comes with club president Rene Bouscatel set to step down after 25 years.
Whether the new boss is as patient as the old boss is a question only time can answer.
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