It’s easy to be cynical about Rugby Club Toulonnais. They have an owner who is either eccentric, if you’re being kind, or akin to a spoilt child if you’re being
harsh realistic. They lavish money on the world’s biggest superstars, offering them eye-watering pay packets to come and live the good life and chuck a rugby ball around in the sun.
That was certainly my viewpoint before actually visiting the place. I was lucky enough to get the chance to do so for the French giants’ must-win Champions Cup game against Wasps, tagging along with the BT Sport crew, out there to broadcast the game.
Never in my experience has a town been so enveloped by its rugby. Wandering the streets on the Sunday afternoon before the game, the place was empty, save for the odd Wasps fan scampering the side streets searching for some grub. That’s because what feels like the entire population of the town is loitering around the ground, sipping on their beers in Mediterranean sun that is warm enough that you don’t need a coat despite it being January.
The Toulon team bus, when it arrives, parks around the corner, deliberately far enough away that there is a significant walk to the ground. The fans create a tunnel some 200 metres long and as the players and coaches filter through, the noise reaches a crescendo. Quade Cooper, not unfamiliar with big occasions, still isn’t used to it – he’s filming it all on his phone. A young girl roughly smacks Steffon Armitage on the leg – he laughs and carries on. 90% of the players are wearing ubiquitous chunky headphones, but I cannot fathom what can possibly sound better to a rugby player than the swarm of noise being created by these quite bonkers fans.
Ugo Monye – here on BT Sport commentary duty – is bouncing off the walls at this point. As much as he misses playing, you can tell how much he loves being able to properly interact with this place rather than having to steel himself in detachment as the players must.
“I played here two or three years ago,” he says in misty-eyed recollection. “We got walloped but it was an experience I absolutely loved. I’m a big football fan, and a comparison [to the Stade Mayol] would be the Nou Camp. It’s just an incredible place, right in the middle of town, and the whole place stops for it. To be able to sit in the stand and take on board the emotion – which is something you try to distance yourself from when you’re on the pitch – is amazing.”
The football comparison is an interesting one. Rugby fans can sometimes turn their noses up at the round-balled game, but in terms of creating atmosphere, there’s a lot that could be learned there. The fans in Toulon have no such need – they take passion for the sport to a new level.
“If the scrum goes backwards, they don’t feel like it’s just the scrum, they feel like the whole town is going backwards,” explains Monye. “The pitch and the city are completely intertwined emotionally. It doesn’t matter how you build your culture, provided you have one, and they seem to have a pretty good one here!
“This crowd are educated. They clapped Bath off the pitch last week. If things aren’t going their way, they’ll boo their own players. From my experience playing here, you’ve got to play the crowd as much as you do the team.”
Indeed, these are real rugby people; some of the most judgemental fans around. Reputation means nothing to them; if you do not bleed for the Toulon shirt, you will be shunned. Early on when Quade Cooper throws a miss pass into touch, or Duane Vermeulen is driven unceremoniously backwards in the tackle, there are murmurs of disgruntlement to my left and right. These are two of the biggest names in World Rugby but they have yet to completely win over the fans, you sense.
Wasps rudely threaten to spoil the party with a superbly gritty effort, defending as if their lives depended on it and landing a sucker punch with a try in the last 10 minutes. With the unbeaten home record in Europe at stake, Toulon finally stir with an 82nd minute try from Drew Mitchell (more on him later). The crowd, not a fingernail left amongst them, erupt in a frenzy of shredded newspaper, the local rag Var Martin – left on every seat before the game – chucked unceremoniously into the night sky by every man, woman and child.
As I said at the beginning, it’s easy to be cynical about Toulon. When the Steffon Armitage debate was at its nadir, many asked why he wouldn’t just come back to England. “Money”, went the most popular answer. Look a little closer, however, and you have to ask the question: as a professional rugby player, why would you ever want to leave this place? Rugby is sewn into the tapestry of the town; as a player, if you buy into it, you are adored in a way that is entirely unique.
One such player is Drew Mitchell. The Toulon fans have taken him into their hearts after a strong couple of seasons in their red jersey. When the teamsheets are read out before the game, he enjoys one of the biggest cheers along with cult hero Mathieu Bastareaud – both are revered here in a way that, say, Vermeulen or Ma’a Nonu are not, despite undoubtedly having bigger reputations. They are yet to earn the respect and admiration of this demanding fanbase.
“They let us know if we’re not up to standard!” says Mitchell of the fans when I catch up with him after the game. “The whistles and the boos will start. You’d prefer not to hear that kind of thing, but they’re supporters, they’re passionate, and they spend a lot of their hard-earned money to come and support us week in week out.
“You see people in the week, out shopping, in the bars, and if we’re not playing well they don’t mind stopping your trolley in the supermarket and letting you know what they think. At least for me I don’t understand what they’re saying, so I just smile and nod and keep walking!
“But it’s great to have that kind of relationship. The walk off the bus is something that doesn’t get old.”
Undoubtedly, the money poured into this club has altered it forever. And Boudjellal himself does his best to sully its reputation, repeatedly throwing his toys out of the pram when he can’t have his own way – this week’s insane threat to join the Premiership being just the latest example.
But watch a game in the stands amongst these fans and you will understand that they would be making just as much noise, and turning out in just as much force, were their team trotting out in the PRO D2 with a bunch of locals and journeymen in the side. Boudjellal and his recruits get the headlines, but the real stars of this place are the fans.
It is certainly true that many a player will have been convinced to come to Toulon after being offered astronomical wages. But while they might come for the money, they stay for the fans. In my experience it is an entirely unique place in rugby.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
BT Sport is the only place to watch top live matches from the European Rugby Champions Cup, European Rugby Challenge Cup and the Aviva Premiership. The ERCC continues this weekend with Bath v RC Toulon, Wasps v Leinster, Benetton Treviso v Munster, Stade Francais Paris v Leicester Tigers and Exeter Chiefs v Ospreys, exclusively live on BT Sport Europe.