PREVIEW: 'Frustrated' Toulon look for mental refocus
TOP 14, WEEK 20: All Black flank Liam Messam admitted Toulon were left frustrated by last week’s narrow defeat by Montpellier, a loss that all but ends Mourad Boudjellal’s club’s shout of reaching the six play-off spots in the Top 14.
While the French national team laboured to victory over Italy in the Six Nations, Toulon went down 18-21 at home – and in the rare absence of Boudjellal for medical reasons – to Montpellier, another star-studded team who’ve fluffed their lines this season.
The result left Toulon 10th in the French elite on 38 points, four behind Montpellier and far off leaders Toulouse, on 72.
“It’s really frustrating,” acknowledged Messam, capped 43 times by the All Blacks and part of the team that won the 2015 World Cup in England.
“It’s my first year in France and I’m still trying to work out how the guys tick, but I think the problem is mental,” the 34-year-old told the Midi Olympique rugby newspaper.
“We have to improve that mental aspect. But we’re still a young team, with players who are 19 or 20. Everyone will learn from this type of situation so as not to relive it, or at least know how to bounce back if it happens again.”
There were again stern words from outspoken club president Boudjellal, who took Messam’s former All Black teammate Julian Savea to task earlier this season for his dip in form, saying he was “no longer welcome” at Toulon.
“My 13th season at the club is more like a Friday the 13th,” the owner said in quotes reported by L’Equipe, having also lined up Wales international Rhys Webb for criticism in recent weeks.
“The season’s dead, we won’t play in the final play-offs, but there is still our honour to save and prepare for next season.”
The comic book magnate added: “The future starts today. Toulon is dead, long live Toulon!”
Boudjellal has in the past made headline signings including the likes of All Blacks Carl Hayman, Sonny Bill Williams and Tana Umaga, England’s World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson and Australian playmaker Matt Giteau.
Next season will see the arrival, among others, of Springbok lock Eben Etzebeth from the Stormers, All Black wing Nehe Milner-Skudder and Bordeaux’s France international scrumhalf Baptiste Serin, while a host of names will be released.
Messam’s arrival in the south of France has coincided with one of Boudjellal’s worst seasons since he took over in 2006, but the New Zealander said he regretted nothing.
“It’s a very interesting experience to go through for me,” said Messam.
“I’ve learnt a lot during the season, be it how rugby is seen in France or how to manage your body because the season is very long.
“In New Zealand you work to make a kind of a gradual step up and peak at key moments. But here that’s not really possible, you have to manage your workload throughout the year, to be able to perform week after week.”
Toulon travel to fifth-placed Lyon on Saturday, a tricky clash with the latter looking to consolidate their top-six place.
“It’s the rhythm of competition here,” said Messam. “The seasons are very long and [against Lyon] we have to put together yet another important match for the club.
“Out of respect for the club and teammates, we’ll have to do everything to prepare well for the match and give everything.”
Leaders Toulouse travel to La Rochelle on Sunday, while second-placed Clermont are away at Agen a day earlier. Castres and Bordeaux-Begles, sitting in third and fourth respectively, are both up in Paris to face Stade Francais and Racing 92.
Lyon v Toulon
Stade Francais v Castres
Perpignan v Grenoble
Pau v Montpellier
Agen v Clermont
Racing 92 v Bordeaux-Begles
La Rochelle v Toulouse