Toulouse set to lead European assault
September 29, 2009
Can Toulouse coach Guy Noves steer his side to their fourth Heineken Cup crown? © Getty Images
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. It may have been a topsy-turvy beginning to the French club season but after eight rounds of the Top 14, the axis of Perpignan, Clermont, Toulouse and Biarritz are once again sitting pretty at the top of the table.
True, Stade Francais' poor start saw Ewen McKenzie dispatched back to Australia but normal service has since been resumed under former Biarrot Jacques Delmas. It wouldn't take Nostradamus to predict that these five clubs will all be safely sitting in the play-off places come the end of April.
October sees the first two rounds of the Heineken Cup which, depending on the club, can mean a busman's holiday for some or a meaningful whack at Europe's finest club competition for others. That is not to say that the Heineken Cup is an unimportant event on the calendar for the French clubs; for triple champions Toulouse, it has become every bit as crucial as the domestic championship. For the others however, it has remained an important yet ultimately secondary competition to the Top 14 - the blame for which lies squarely at the doors of the LNR (Ligue National de Rugby) and the ERC (European Rugby Cup).
French champions Perpignan are one of those clubs. Over the years the Catalan club have displayed an ambivalence towards the Heineken Cup which has plunged towards downright hostility at times. Last season's Marius Tincu 'affair' was the latest in a long line of supposed slights against the club which left a bitter taste in the mouth. It also reinforced the rather widespread notion found in France that the Heineken Cup and the ERC in general are some kind of 'Anglo-Saxon' construct, built to suit the interests of the British and Irish teams.
However, in Jacques Brunel, Perpignan have a coach intent on not resting on his laurels and the additional carrot of this year's final at the Stade de France could prove to make this year's Heineken Cup an irresistible target.
Last weekend's impressive victory over Clermont was described by forwards coach Bernard Goutta as their best in his three seasons as coach and left Perpignan's Heineken Cup Pool 1 opponents in no doubt that they will be a major challenger - if they decide to take it seriously.
Brunel understands that Perpignan needs European rugby if it is to become one of the great French clubs of its generation. Last season's Top 14 win removed a 54-year noose that had been around the neck of the club and Brunel knows that if his club are to be measured amongst contemporaries such as Toulouse, the Heineken Cup is the only show in town.
Commercially, it makes sense too. For some time now, Perpignan have been gazing enviously at the success of Biarritz in moving matches to San Sebastien and would dearly love to do the same in Barcelona. The promise of opening up a whole new market for the Catalan team is not lost on Perpignan president Paul Goze, who recently reaffirmed the club's commitment to take one of their games south to Barcelona.
"If we qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter or semi-finals, we might be able to host a game in Barcelona," said Goze. "In southern Catalunya there is a real interest in the Heineken Cup in particular because of the football culture and the importance placed on the European Champions League."
Goze would undoubtedly love to see Perpignan's natural progression from regional power to European royalty like their bitter Occitan rivals Toulouse. Guy Noves' club has long been one of the standard-bearers of the Heineken Cup and would seem to be well-placed to qualify for the knock-out rounds once again this year having drawn Cardiff Blues, Harlequins and Sale Sharks in their pool. Noves will be hoping however that the old adage of form being temporary is true when they kick off their Heineken campaign against Sale at Ernest Wallon on Saturday week.
Put simply, Les Toulousains have endured a poor start to the season by their standards. And while they've enjoyed set-piece domination in most of their matches (they've enjoyed a 92% success rate at lineout time) it's been their finishing that's been causing all manner of problems. But Noves insists he's not worried and logic should dictate that we believe him; he is after all European rugby's longest serving and most successful club coach.
Should Noves manage to add a fourth European Cup to the trophy cabinet this season will very much depend on luck. An already busy May fixture list has been made all the more daunting with the introduction of the new play-off round and the Top 14 final being brought back to May 29, one week after the Heineken final.
In addition, it means that the top six French clubs will be fighting it out for a Top 14 semi-final spot just seven days before the Heineken final. With so many high intensity games within a short space of time, France's club bosses will be once again have to prioritise. Sadly for the Heineken Cup, most of them will have already made their choice.