When Johnny Wilkinson swapped the cold of Newcastle for the Mediterranean beaches of Toulon; most thought of it as Johnny’s “Year in Provence” moment. Yet, he has signed on for another 3 year contract. Since entering the portals of the fearsome Stade Felix Mayol he has become completely accepted and converted to the crusade of making RC Toulon the champion rugby club of France. Toulon is on the edge of France, a huge naval port, with a slightly shadowy reputation.
The followers of the club have taken the clean-cut Wilkinson to their hearts as one of their own. In their own land, Toulon has become used to being unloved, their results looked for in the hope that they have lost, rather than won. Much of this appears to be their reluctance to doff their cap to the FFR. Their ambition is naked and tangible; the Boucleir de Brennus is what they want. It’s been a twenty year wait and they appear to be in a hurry to regain it. But, to many it looks as if they are trying to buy the title by recruiting the best players in the world. In the rugby world though it is Toulon, that appear the most atavistic of all the French clubs though their financial plan is dwarfed by the massive budget of the establishment’s favourites Toulouse, at 31 million Euros.
Much of the establishment’s frustration is directed towards the colourful publishing magnate, the unapologetic hard rock loving Mourad Boudjellal. The Stade Felix Mayol is his theatre woven into the fabric of Toulon, like the Kingsholm of Gloucester. It has become a theatre with AC/DC blasting over the PA, followed by the evocative “Pilou Pilou” call to arms that involves the crowd being brought to a frenzy of expectation. Boudjellal looks on with satisfaction, but so far the team has failed to deliver the ultimate prize. The actors are there but they seem to be constantly fluffing their lines. Once again it looks like the pretenders to Toulouse’s throne will be disappointed, though this season might well have a sting in the tail.
On Saturday Toulon put aside the bitter disappointment of defeat in the Amlin Challenge Cup final, and gave a huge performance to overturn a half time deficit of 10 points and defeat Racing Métro 92 17-13. It was just the type of demonstration that can turn a season around, and the fans loved it. After fifty minutes the Toulon players, perhaps sensing another opportunity slipping away began to play with an irresistible controlled ferocity that left Racing Métro devastated.
It was a sign of the growing maturity and collectiveness of the team when it became clear that Wilkinson was not enjoying one of his best days with the boot. Matt Giteau stepped up to the challenge, superbly. Perhaps the greatest threat to Wilkinson’s iconic status with the “Pilou-Pilou” is another Englishman, Steffon Armitage, France’s Player of the Year. His try was another symptom of the wonderful season he has enjoyed; his dynamic lines of running and support mark him out not only as an exceptional player but without doubt as the best English number 7. His performance combined with the impact of Bakkies Botha and Simon Shaw broke Racing Métro’s resistance.
Toulon’s semi-final will be against Clermont. They can play without fear; they will want payback for the travesty of their last semi-final against Clermont in 2010. Laporte is going to have let go of his infamous pragmatism and let the players have their heads. There is a rigour about Toulon now in the manner they took care of business on Saturday, using the recent disappointments as a reason to push on, to motivate to restock the fires. They will now look forward to going to neutral Toulouse next Sunday, Clermont will be seen as eminently beatable; the example of Leinster the blueprint for Toulon to follow. Clermont will go into game slightly undercooked, injured players might have recovered but the physicality that Toulon will bring, will challenge the efficacy of their healing.
Boudejal and Laporte deserve credit for getting the club to this position. They have created their own monster of expectation, and occasionally this pressure has got to the both of them. But the RC Toulon machine has waxed rather then waned. Fiscally the club is in excellent shape; new blood will come in next season specifically chosen to strengthen the squad. The Boucleir is in their sights. Next Sunday the red and black will have an excellent chance of overcoming Clermont, and they will definitely fancy their chances of dealing with the strangely lacklustre kings of France, Toulouse, in the final. Maybe the sting in the tail is about to be unleashed?