French clubs primed to dominate euro battle
October 11, 2012
Could a Jonny Wilkinson-inspired Toulon be about to stamp their mark on Europe's premier club competition? © Getty Images
The temperature might be in the low twenties but there's no mistaking an October day in the city of Toulouse. In weather that would be warm enough to get most Brits down to their undies, legions of Toulousains traverse their city bedecked in scarves and winter coats. For the locals, October means two things: winter is coming and the H Cup is back in town.
Save for Dublin and Limerick, there probably isn't another city in Europe where the Heineken Cup can feel as loved and adored as Toulouse. The club was instrumental in creating the Matra Masters in 1986, bringing together a litter of international clubs for a cup competition despite virulent opposition from the FFR and IRB. Ten years later that same club would hold aloft the first IRB sanctioned European Cup as winners. Put simply, Toulouse without European Rugby just wouldn't be Toulouse.
Guy Noves has had plenty of days in the sun with the club he has coached for nigh on twenty years, and despite the on-going root and branch reconstruction of the side, the good days just keep on coming. Last June's French Championship win against Toulon was their second consecutive league title, making it 19 in total. Three-in-a-row seems mighty tempting but since they're in the middle of a Heineken Cup drought - they haven't won it since 2010 after all - they'll probably make the European competition their priority this year.
Probably is the key word here as nobody has ever managed to get inside the head of Guy Noves. The veteran coach has never done priorities, officially, preferring to go with the flow in a particular season and allocate resources depending on which competition gives him the best odds. These two-pronged assaults for silverware have been made possible because of the club's financial might but there are increasing signs that two others - Clermont Auvergne and Toulon - are on the verge of being able to do what Toulouse have made their name doing.
Of the duo, it is most inexperienced at this level, Toulon, who look as though they could have a serious bearing on the eventual destination of the Heineken Cup this season. Sitting pretty on the summit of the Top 14 following their first eight fixtures, Toulon have the air of a club who have finally arrived as a real force in French and European rugby. Granted, there was never a shortage of talent at the club in recent years but the additions of Gethin Jenkins, Andrew Sheridan, Bakkies Botha, Chris Masoe, Fred Michalak, Maxime Mermoz et al over the summer have see Bernard Laporte assemble of squad of unprecedented depth.
"At RCT, we want to win the H Cup. That what makes sense to us, and we'll do our utmost to make it happen," wacky club owner Mourad Boudjellal told La Provence recently. With a Heineken Cup pool featuring Montpellier, Cardiff Blues and Sale, only the foolhardy would write Boudjellal and Toulon off.
Five hundred and fifty kilometres northwest of Toulon lies another club with similar designs of landing a Heineken Cup for the first time. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory became something of a Clermont speciality for the first 99 years of their existence until they finally won their first French title in 11 attempts in 2010. It looked like history was repeating itself last April when, with the game in its dying seconds and with the Leinster try line at his mercy, Wesley Fofana lost control of the ball when scoring a try seemed to have been easier. Leinster escaped to win that Heineken Cup semi-final 15-9 and the rest as they say is history.
Pooled once again with Leinster, Clermont have arguably the toughest route to the play-offs of any French side. But with no Rugby World Cup in sight, and a strength in depth that has allowed them like Toulouse and Toulon, to rotate their side this season quicker than a PRO12 team in April, a fresh-faced Clermont will push the defending champions to the very limit.
The Gallic threat doesn't stop there. Liberated by the lack of the aforementioned World Cup in the already suffocated French fixture calendar, Montpellier and Biarritz could both be a handful for the clubs they come across, although the latter have suffered recently in the absence of the talismanic Dimitri Yachvilli and Imanol Harinordoquy. Yet there are those who might say Biarritz' pool resembles something of a paddle pool compared to some of the others, with only Harlequins the only side providing a real threat alongside Connacht and Zebre. The Quins supporters that remember the Irish province's win over the English side last season, and the inhabitants of Galway city would beg to differ.
And what pray tell, of Racing Metro and Castres? The Parisian club have had yet another disappointing start to the season (losing 13-16 at home to Montpellier last weekend) given their resources and with rumours already flying around about the future of new coach Gonzalo Quesada, the Heineken Cup will likely already have become an unwanted distraction from the work needed to get them out their rather lowly seventh place in the Top 14. Still, Racing like Castres, will remain a tough cookie to beat at home and with an inexperienced and youthful Munster team first up at the Stade de France, a handsome win could set them up for a decent tilt at the pool.
At a time when so much has been spoken and written about the future structure of European competition and the alleged advantages of some, will this finally be the year when the French really make their financial firepower count?
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