Toulouse: The new dynasty
The four-time European champions, Toulouse, remain undefeated in Champions Cup pool play after a back-to-back double over Wasps.
They are also currently sitting second in the Top 14 league, back in vogue as a European power.
Just two years removed from missing the Top 14 play-offs for the first time in 40 years, how did they become a legitimate force in the running for European glory again?
Toulouse has quickly regained status as a French powerhouse under ex-French international Ugo Mola, but it has been a testing process.
When Mola replaced Guy Novès as Toulouse coach in 2016, there could not have been a harder act to follow, with old habits dying hard and locker room loyalty proving hard to sway.
Novès is a living legend in Toulouse, having played over 250 games for the side through the ’70s and ’80s before moving into the coaching staff immediately in his post-playing career where he resided until 2015, overseeing all four European titles.
He was likened to the French equivalent of legendary football manager Sir Alex Ferguson, a transcendent icon in sport.
“When Ugo was named, he did not have his locker room,” winger Yoann Huget explained.
“He replaced an icon of Stade Toulousain – we can compare Guy Novès to Alex Ferguson at Manchester United – so it was tricky and complicated as a succession.”
The transition became difficult with Mola looking to change what worked in the past and take Toulouse into a new era.
There was resistance from a playing group constructed by Noves, with little buy-in for Mola’s controlled attacking game plan based around the collective – not individual – achievements. Immediate results did not come to fruition.
Aside from replacing a local hero as head coach, the club chartered rather unfamiliar waters towards Top 14 success, pioneering a different approach to recruitment under former club captain Fabien Pelous, who took over recruitment and development as part of the Sporting Director role.
Under Pelous, Toulouse rebuilt their roster around premium homegrown talent sprinkled with astute signings, both undervalued journeymen and high-profile superstars, but on balance they bet heavily on developing their own.
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Toulouse’s tight five is still extremely young, with the majority of the starters still 25 years or younger, headlined by 23-year-old hooker Julien Marchand (RPI – 85) who has already notched 95 appearances for the club. He is joined in the front row by 22-year-old Clément Castets (RPI – 75), while 21-year-old lock Florian Verhaeghe (RPI – 83) often packs down in the second row.
The youth policy is starting to pay dividends for Mola, who was able to shape his vision with fresh faces and young minds.
It helps that this bunch of talent are also highly-touted prospects, with six of the side that started against Wasps having represented France at the under 20 level since 2015. There are age-grade stars littered throughout the side, mixed in with experienced veterans.
With knowledge of the national youth system, there were times where Pelous saw opportunities to snatch other up-and-coming French talents. He went after young star halfback Antoine Dupont (RPI – 87) who had already notched 60 games for Castres by the time he was 20 years old.
“Even if Antoine is new to the French public this season, we have been following his progress for several years,” he said at the time of the deal.
Toulouse was able to sign him to a three-year deal ahead of the 2017-18 season and pick up one of the best halfbacks in the country with the majority of his career ahead of him.
The club had just reached a low point, however, with a 12th placed league finish in 2016-17 a historically-bad result. The investments in a young team were building experience, but whether this would translate into success was an unknown.
Along with Du Pont, Toulouse picked up former All Black Charlie Faumuina, Australian first-five Zack Holmes and South African dynamo Cheslin Kolbe, who was judged the best Top 14 signing of the season and propelled back up for a third-placed finish last year, earning Champions Cup qualification.
They uncovered and debuted another France under-20 star, 18-year-old midfielder Romain Ntamack (RPI – 82), son of former French international Émile Ntamack. Another under-20 product, 23-year-old speedster Thomas Ramos (RPI – 89) solidified himself at fullback and proved to be an ace goal kicker, striking at around 80 percent.
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Toulouse had put together an exciting young core and needed time to master Mola’s grand plan of uniquely French rugby.
Under the guidance of Mola, the side aims to win through a ‘controlled offensive game’.
The output of which is discernibly still French, with a laissez-faire attitude of throwing the ball around, however, there is a knack for scoring points against the run of play and enough unpredictability with ball-in-hand to confuse modern defences.
Mola’s emphasis has been on counter-attack, which players describe as the ‘DNA’ of the team.
While players like Kolbe and Ramos are always imminent threats to breakaway, the side is full of promoters of ball able to pop and offload immediately after winning a turnover.
They flourish together in a predatory fashion to take the ball away from the opposition and open up Toulouse’s counter game.
There is nothing clinical about their style of play, when they have ball-in-hand it can look very ugly and seem like it isn’t achieving much before someone somewhere will do something unexpected.
The only time there seems to be a detailed plan of attack is from first phase plays, where they use Cheslin Kolbe frequently as a first receiver.
On defence, it is about disruption, and turning that disruption into points through free-flowing play.
In plotting the upset against Leinster, their first 11-points were all built on loose Leinster turnovers and capitalizing immediately.
A try on the stroke of half-time was scored in unorthodox fashion with no form of structure and a loose forward dancing around, drawing defenders and freeing up strike centre Sofiane Guitoune with a well-timed offload.
Leinster methodically worked their way back on top only to be undone by an intercept in which Toulouse threw two offloads to keep the movement alive and score from 80-metres out.
Bath was undone by a Toulouse side coming back from a 12-20 deficit, and a never-say-die try saving effort from club legend Maxime Medard on Freddie Burns in the in-goal. Wasps have been dismantled in a similar fashion to Leinster, twice.
Toulouse embraces chaos and thrive on imperfection, and so far have remained perfect.
They may not remain that way for long, such is the style that they embody, however with a young core of French talent Toulouse has built a contender for the long-term that is able to beat anybody on any day in a uniquely French way.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass