Since Mourad Boudjellal purchased Toulon in 2007 the landscape of European rugby has changed dramatically. Boudjellal inherited a club that had just been relegated from the Top 14 winning only 3 out of 26 matches. Within 2 years Toulon had secured promotion back to the Top 14 and avoided relegation finishing 9th the following season.
Boudjellal has employed a transfer policy similar to Real Madrid’s ‘Galacticos’ signing superstars and hoping they mould into a cohesive unit. The likes of George Gregan, Sonny Bill Williams and Tana Umaga were some of the first big signings to join Boudjellal’s regime and many others would follow. “It was incredible, because we were in the second division and I was speaking with the best player in the world. But he said yes and came to play for Toulon” said Boudjellal speaking of Umaga’s signing.
Tana Umaga was initially appointed as a player/coach for the 2008/09 Top 14 season however mid-way through he was relieved of his duties with the club in danger of relegation, he was replaced by Phillipe Saint Andre who guided Toulon to safety.
Saint Andre helped Toulon reach the semi finals in both the Top 14 and Heineken cup plus Toulon played in the 2009/10 Challenge cup final. After 2 years in charge Saint Andre left to coach the France national team, Bernard Laporte was announced as his successor, Jonny Wilkinson, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, Felipe Contempomi and Pierre Mignoni was brought in alongside Laporte.
Mourad Boudjellal set about assembling a dream team capable of dominating in both domestic and European competition. Toulon reached two consecutive Top 14 finals in 2011/12 and 2012/13 were they faced Toulouse and Castres. In both finals Toulon came up short losing 18-12 and 19-14 respectively, however the 2012/13 season still proved to be influential for the club.
Toulon faced Montpellier, Cardiff Blues and Sale Sharks in their Heineken cup group, they qualified in first place winning 5 of their 6 matches. Toulon defeated Leicester Tigers 21-15 in the quarters-finals and Saracens 24-12 in the semis. This set up a final against French rivals Clermont Auvergne at the Aviva stadium in Dublin. Clermont are well-known to choke in the big matches losing 3 consecutive Top 14 finals in a row from 2007 to 2009, Toulon were playing in their first Heineken cup final.
The match was a tight affair throughout with the score locked at 3-3 going into half-time, Clermont struck first at the start of the second half with Napolioni Nalaga scoring on 42 minutes. Brock James extended Clermont’s lead 6 minutes later with another try, Jonny Wilkinson kicked over a penalty in between Clermont’s two tries. The score was 15-6 to Clermont and this lasted for just over 10 minutes, Jonny Wilkinson converted another penalty on the 60th minute taking the score to 15-9 and 4 minutes later Toulon struck.
Delon Armitage scored a try on the 64th minute with Jonny Wilkinson adding the two extra points, Toulon had edged into lead and the next 15 minutes would be an absolute nightmare for the clubs fans. Clermont had one final attack on Toulon’s 22 metre line with 3 minutes to go, Toulon repelled wave after wave of Clermont’s relentless attack for well over 2 minutes with both teams looking shot to pieces. Clermont eventually spilled the ball forward and the contest was over, Toulon held on to win their first Heineken cup title making history in the process.
Next season more silverware followed with Toulon completing a historic double winning both the Champions Cup and Top 14 titles, the club overcame Castres in the Top 14 final winning 18-10 and Toulon dominated Saracens 23-6 in the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff to win their second consecutive Champions Cup.
Toulon fell short in the 2014/15 Top 14 season losing out 33-16 to Stade Francais at the semi final stage, however success in Europe continued for Toulon. The club defeated Wasps and Leinster to reach their third consecutive Champions cup final, Toulon faced Clermont Auvergne once again in a repeat of the 2012/13 final, the match took place at Twickenham in front of 56,000 spectators. Toulon defeated Clermont 24-18 to become the first team to achieve a ‘three peat’ by winning the competition 3 times in a row.
Since then Toulon have experienced a trophy drought and have gone three seasons without any silverware. Bernard Laporte left his role as head coach in 2016 after 5 years successful years at the helm and many of Toulon’s best players have followed suit.
Matt Giteau (left the club to play in Japan), Ali Williams (retired), Carl Hayman (retired), Drew Mitchell (retired), Bryan Habana (retired), Bakkies Botha (retired), Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe (retired), Juan Smith (retired) and many more. The club has struggled to replace these influential players and this has translated onto the field.
Toulon have still managed to sign the likes of Maa Nonu, Duane Vermeulen, Quade Cooper, JP Petersen, Luke McAlister and Malakai Feketoa, but these players have failed to make the same impact. Toulon have relied heavily on individual talent instead of working as a cohesive unit. On the field Toulon have struggled to find any continuity and look erratic, they are capable of absolute brilliance but can only seem to produce it in short bursts.
Mourad Boujellal has found it difficult to replace Bernard Laporte with Diego Dominguez, Mike Ford and Fabien Galthie all getting the sack, Galthie’s stint was the longest only lasting one season. Toulon have finished runners-up in the Top 14 two years in a row and last season the club lost to Lyon in the quarter finals. Toulon also have disappointed in Europe with the club failing to make it past the quarter finals in the last 3 seasons.
This season Boudjellal has employed Patrice Collazo as Toulon’s new head coach, the former La Rochelle coach will face the intimidating task of turning around one of the most ambitious clubs in Europe. Toulon have looked shaky at the start of this season losing 3 matches and winning only 2, they are currently ranked 9th in the Top 14. Toulon will face Montpellier, Edinburgh and Newcastle Falcons in a difficult Champions cup group, but they will be favourites to qualify.
Mourad Boudjellal has completely changed Toulon rugby with the massive amount of success the club has achieved. Boudjellal likes to stir up controversy with his outspoken demeanour but there is no doubt he loves Toulon rugby. In the space of 10 years he has dragged Toulon from the second division of French rugby, brought in an abundance of world-class talent and has achieved unprecedented success on the field.
Toulon look unlikely contenders to replicate their previous success this season yet the club can never be written off. Patrice Collazo is a talented head coach who deserves to be given time and with a squad containing Guilhem Guirado, Facundo Isa, Mamuka Gorgodze, Liam Messam, Mathieu Basterareaud, Malakai Feketoa, Julien Savea, Rhys Webb, Anthony Belleau, JP Petersen and Josua Tuisova, Toulon will certainly be competitive.
Whether they can achieve their lofty ambitions remains to be seen.
I would like to credit the Top 14 YouTube channel, BowserX4, Rugbymeet and Rugbydump for the videos provided in this blog. The revelant links are below.