The Spirit of the Golden Belltower

Allez Toulon, the third ever back-to-back Heineken Cup champions. If they were deeply fortunate to win the pot last year, helped in no end by a calamitous collapse from specialist chokers Clermont, this time around they did it in style, dispatching Saracens by 23 points to 6. In the end they were strolling, and went close to adding another try on, which would have made it 30-6, which we all know to be a scoreline that signifies a COMPLETE ROUT!

What was most notable was the extraordinary bond the players have with one another, and their fans. Matt Giteau (who just oozes class, by the way) took to Twitter to tell the world he’d won the Cup with his ‘best mates’. Johnny Wilkinson spoke in his usual extraordinarily humble way, hitting every right note as he always does. Heck, he was already thinking about the Top 14 final!

In the game of rugby, the belief has long been held that success is hard to buy, and cannot simply be imported wholesale. In a game in which physicality and espirit de corps are such dominant factors, a team which is suitably motivated to put the hurting on its opponents can overcome limitations such as y’know, skill, or a decent lineout and utilise its physical advantage to win rugby matches.

Having a proud fanbase and a rich tapestry of history is something which rugby teams utilise to drive this fervour and passion, none more so than the Irish provinces. In short, the jersey matters. We all know the backdrop at this stage, and though each of the provinces has their own unique history and identity, in all of them there is a sense that to play for the jersey and for the fans is important and attaches a certain standard below which one dare not fall. For most of the players, they’re playing for their local team, and many of them spent their youths on the terraces as supporters. As Denis Hickie put it ‘I’m a Leinster lad. That’s my team. I don’t make any apologies for it.’ The communities are relatively small and close knit and the players place a huge premium on playing for their province, often literally in the case of signing contracts when greater riches are on offer elsewhere.

We do occasionally need to remind ourselves that the Irish provinces are not unique (Exhibit A: the periodic “Irish can teach French culture and passion” stories from Gerry), and in England and France there exist many great clubs with their own strong senses of identity and rich, glorious histories; Toulouse, Castres, Clermont Auverge, Biarritz, Perpignan, Leicester, Northampton, Bath and so on.

Toulon is a rugby-mad town but the team has been bought in. None of the South African, Argentinian or Australian superstars they have on the books have an innate attachment to Toulon, and presumably none of them are all that au fait with the history of the trench warfare that is French rugby. None of them would say ‘I’m a Toulon lad. That’s my team. I make no apologies for it.’ It only serves to make their accomplishments all the more impressive. You can buy success in rugby it seems, but only if you buy the right people. And this is the crux of it. Toulon have recruited sensationally well. There are leaders, standard-bearers and born winners across the team.

While Racing got the chequebook out for the likes of Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts, Toulon have no problem bringing in guys who appear miles over the hill, or whose share price has come off a high; Bakkies Botha, Simon Shaw and Castrogiovanni anyone? Matt Giteau was unceremoniously dumped by Australia but it now seems incredible that his talents could be overlooked by anoyone. Juan Smith had been forced to retire, but gets re-threaded at Toulon and plugs right into the team ethos. It works, because the likes of Castro, Shawsy and Wilkinson are grizzled pros who know how to get the job done, and have the respect of every other player with whom they come into contact. Wilkinson, as we know, demands of himself the highest of high standards – his mental torture and intensity is such that he barely looks like he enjoys a second of what he does.

Sure, they’re all world class players, so they have an innate advantage, but at the same time they’re all extremely well paid, playing for a team far from home in the sunny climes of the Mediterranean coast. It would be easy for them to simply phone it in; but they don’t. Where does the hunger come from? Key individuals such as Jonny Wilkinson and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe are instrumental in ensuring everyone is aware that this is not a club where you can simply pick up a cheque.

The maintenance of this spirit is going to be an exceedingly difficult thing to maintain, especially after the post-RWC15 global player churn – Wilkinson is likely to stick around the club to provide a guiding hand, and it’s hard to see key men like Steffon Armitage, Fernandez Lobbe, Giteau or Bastaread leaving any time soon. What price the corp of 2007 Springboks nearing the end of the road – Bakkies, Smith and Roussouw – get swapped en masse for a chunk of 2015 BNZ-ers who finally feel that they have earned a French payday. What chance Ruchie, Kieran Read, DC and Ma’a Nonu – players who are about as far from the Beaver-in-Bath dialling-it-in Southern Hemisphere player as can be imagined – rocking up in two years as the next generation of Toulonnais?

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  1. Poor Joe Van Niekerk. Remeber him as the first of Toulons galaticos to actually set serious standards in the squad on his arrival in 2008. Was awesome in the thumping they took at Thomond Park in 2010, and equally impressive in the far less enjoyable trip to France. Guys like him and Wilkinson have laid the platform for the Botha’s, Giteaus and Roussows to come in and take the club to the pinnacle. Hope the big man enjoys retirement always seemed a throughly decent bloke.

  2. Was at the match, in the middle of a bunch of Toulon fans, and to be honest they were the highlight of the day for me.

    You definitely get a sense that while the players may not be totally up to date on their Toulon/Top14 history, they and the fans definitely buy into each other, which at the end of the day I think is all that matters, no matter how you do it. And in Toulon’s case, a lot of it (love him/hate him/respect him) has to be down to Boudjellal, for putting his money where his heart is and bringing in the right aforementioned guys in the first place.

    To be honest I was a little disappointed in the lack of support for Sarries (although I heard afterwards that a bunch were late because of traffic) that I heard/saw in the crowd, I wouldn’t be surprised if the neutrals outnumbered them to be honest.

    Cracker of a game though, I did feel that Sarries lost it a little leading up to Mitchell’s try though, and afterward they seemed to just run a gameplan of “give it to Brits/Billy and watch how badly they get isolated” afterwards. Toulon were pretty magnificent though, and I’m glad I managed to see Jonny live, with a full repertoire of kicks and everything!

    Bye Heineken Cup, it’s been a blast. Hopefully your stupidly named, ginger headed freckled stepchild can step up to the plate, but we’ll see.

    • O'Riordan

       /  May 27, 2014

      That’s the thing about Sarries, they really don’t have a big core support. Their crowds for games at Twickenham and Wembley are based upon cheap or free tickets but when it comes to paying full price (like for a HEC final…) that sorts out the real supporters from the freeloaders. I can understand why Saracens use the big games as loss leaders to try and build their core support but it will be interesting to see if they ever manage to even get close to the level of support of the Irish provinces, Leicester or Toulon. Not that you would think this given Mr Wray’s utterings.

      • I think Saracens have somewhere in the realm of a few thousand season ticket holders. They give out a lot of tickets to local schools, presumably hoping that some of the kids will stick with the club for life. In fairness, they’re still trying to put down lasting roots in a neighbourhood where they have to compete not with other rugby clubs for fans, but with Arsenal and Spurs. Mr Rachel grew up around there and while his family and friends might watch England in the 6 Nations, on a weekly basis they’re all surgically attached to the football. Even he only picked up a strong interest in the club game at university, partially in response to me banging on about Leinster all the time.

        I think in this case they weren’t helped by the fact that the official coaches put on by the club only arrived 35 minutes into the game, due to the traffic – so the most hardcore fans were precisely the ones who didn’t make it until nearly the end of the first half, after which point it all went a bit downhill for Sarries. The Toulon fans, on the other hand, were great. Their connection to the players is so clear and the huge walls of noise they produced for their beloved Jonny would nearly bring a tear to the eye. Though there is something a little funny about them singing la Marseillaise in support of a team with only one or two French players!

        • O'Riordan

           /  May 27, 2014

          I live in London so am aware that Saracens are equivalent to about Football League One levels of support and interest from the population.

          I do find it somewhat ironic that after all the PRL spin about the incompetence of the ERC, one of their own couldn’t even get their supporters to the ground on time. Lots of traffic on a bank holiday weekend… who’d have thought it? 😉

        • I actually think they’ve got the makings of a great club, but they really need to tone down the corporate tone in my opinion (and get rid of those godawful anthems [despite pot/kettle etc]). Allianz park looks like it’s probably a good size for them, but their image still seems to be rooted in the 90s to me, which is annoying because I’ve actually grown to like a few of their heavies (Brits, Brown, Billy V, grudging respect for Borthwick)

          Also Mark McCall really needs to coach the swan dive out of Ashton’s repetoire, because when he isn’t doing it and picking inside lines he’s a pretty decent player.

          • rachel685

             /  May 27, 2014

            Yes, and people who drove managed to get there on time! It’s seriously embarrassing for the club.

            I get the sense that the Ashton thing is almost like a microcosm of the club as a whole – like at this point, Ashton clearly only does that dive because he knows how much people hate it. It’s the same with the club. They feel unfairly maligned, so they double down on all the stuff that makes people hate them in the first place in order to build that all-important siege mentality and chip on the collective shoulder. It’s a shame in a way, because as you say they have some quite likeable players who all seem really dedicated to the group (…plus Ashton).

          • One of the things that bemused me about Saracens this season was McCall getting coach of the year in the Premiership. I’ve always had a suspicion that he’s a coaching pass-through-server for Brendan Venter, and sure enough there was Venter glowering behind McCall in the coaches’ box again on Saturday….

            As to the making of a great club? Wray is alledged to have sold all or most of his shareholding to South African suckers, sorry, investors, and they have racked up 30+ million losses in the last 7 years on top of a sizeable investment in the new stadium. Basically, they need to double their turnover just to stop losing money, or treble it to write off their debt in the next decade. If there is a millenial-era Leeds United in European rugby, Saracens are it.

          • O'Riordan

             /  May 27, 2014

            I think they have generated an esprit de corps amongst the players with a Millwall-esque “no one likes us, we don’t care” attitude.

            Having their own ground will certainly help establishing some roots. Whether people develop the same affection for Allianz Park that has happened for other club grounds remains to be seen, and while it is big enough for Saracens current support, it isn’t big enough to get them out of the red financially.

            Sarries marketing stunts do annoy many. On one hand, you have to applaud innovation but on the other, I can’t help but think that a lot of their activities are purely stunts and at the end of the day, haven’t achieved very much. They also have the advantage of being able to chuck lots of money at these. If the money dries up, so will their marketing budget.

            Sarries are also targeting businesses in the city but I don’t know how much this brings in compared to ordinary punters.

            I agree that they will likely be in trouble if the saffa investors lose interest…

          • Paddy

             /  May 27, 2014

            Theirs nothing innovative about being a dick or a mickey-waver and it won’t draw people in either. Using sand paper as bog roll is innovation, but it’s not clever. If your having trouble cleaning yourself using conventional methods don’t reach for the sand paper.

  3. Colly Noonan

     /  May 27, 2014

    Listening to Dexy on Off the Ball last night, he suggested that the Fantastic Four lined up for Toulon are Dan Carter, Ma Nonu, Sonny Bill and Richie McCaw. Even if he were to deliver two out of four, that is a truly frightening prospect for the provinces.

    • Sunny Bull was there before, pre-Wilko, wasn’t he?

      • Colly Noonan

         /  May 27, 2014

        Yup. You are spot on. He left Toulon in 2010 to play for the All Blacks. Allegedly left a deal on the table worth six million over three years.

    • I’d have said Read instead of SBW tbh, but not outside the realms of possibility!

      • Left of the Dial

         /  May 27, 2014

        Read’s signed up with NZRU until 2017, I think a few of the other All Blacks are on similar long term deals. Can’t see the Kiwis voluntarily parting ways with the crown jewels, but given they’re just about breaking even though maybe Boudjellal’s planning on offering a stupidly big transfer fee.

  4. Leinsterlion

     /  May 27, 2014

    Exceedingly harsh to lump Bakkies in with the over the hill brigade, he can still at a world class level, Ali Williams, yes, over the hill, Bakkies, no.
    Juan Smith, take a bow, two years out of the game, numerous botched surgeries on his achilles and still one of the best in the game. Someone should send his game tape to POM and have him watch it on repeat during the summer, if he has designs on ever becoming a high level international blindside, Smith is the man to emulate, he would waltz into the Bok team, any team for that matter
    Aside from the ferocity of some of the hits, that was a horrendous game, slightly worried that Toulon can kick on and utterly dominate Europe, they have the money to do it.

    • Kelly Peters

       /  May 27, 2014

      Your ability to manufacture a way to have a pop at POM is second to none

      • Stephen

         /  May 27, 2014

        POM could learn something from Leinsterlion’s ability to manufacture opportunities.

  5. Rava

     /  May 27, 2014

    Love them or loathe them, Toulon played some scintillating rugby on Saturday.
    As a neutral on the day that was a highlight. Totally agree with WOC on Giteau. He’s just fantastic to watch.

    The only real reaction from the Sarries fans was the moan when Habana took the dive.

  6. Bob Simons

     /  May 27, 2014

    No chance Read, he’s signed on until 2017 AFAIK. The other 3 maybe.

  7. Kelly Peters

     /  May 27, 2014

    The only thing denying them a three in a row is the fact the tournament will have a different name next year. The players they have coming in next year will make them even scarier. I can’t say I’m a fan of Toulon in any way but I was delighted to see Sarries lose. Everything about them rubs me up the wrong way. From giving out 80000 free tickets to claim a record, the lack of fans, the arrogance of the few fans you do meet, the drowning out of away fans using the speaker system, shoving their ‘team bonding’ in everyones face, Farrell’s faux hard man act, Chris Ashton in general and on and on and on. At least with Toulon they’ve players you can respect and their fans are passionate and good craic. One of the few things they have in common is an insufferable chairman.

  8. Will

     /  May 27, 2014

    And so the transition to rugby league is complete. Maybe knock a couple of players off each team for next year and we’ll be there. That aside, Toulon were brilliant and the analysis here is spot on.
    Seems to me that Jonathan Sexton would fit in very well with their high achieving and winning mentality. Let’s hope the draw to home is greater than money, success and fine weather.

  9. Andrew

     /  May 27, 2014

    Looking at the game it is such a shame Leinster didn’t bring their running game to Toulon, the kick and chase game ( executed very badly ) went nowhere. Leinster in reality didn’t even test them properly. 😦

    • Riocard Ó Tiarnaigh

       /  May 27, 2014

      Jaysus, don’t remind me in ainm Dé, after I’d kinda managed to forget!!!!

  10. curates_egg

     /  May 28, 2014

    Would have to disagree that “Toulon is a rugby-mad town”. That was not my experience, compared to other French rugby towns. It seems a lot of the following comes from the surrounding region, rather than the town.

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