Toulon set for Heineken bow
September 27, 2010
Toulon want to make the Stade Mayol a fortress © Getty Images
Toulon will make their Heineken Cup bow this season but the ambitious club are already playing down their chances of success in Europe's premier club competition.
The club's run to the Top 14 semi-finals last season signalled their re-emergence as a European heavyweight - a fact underlined but their appearance in the Amlin Challenge Cup Final, where they were edged out by Cardiff Blues. That success has guaranteed them a place among Europe's elite this season, where they face the daunting prospect of Munster, Ospreys and London Irish in the Pool stages.
"For the first time the club will be in the Heineken Cup and with Munster, Ospreys and London Irish it could not be tougher," head coach Philippe Saint-Andre said. "We are the underdogs in the group, but we will try to make the Stade Mayol a fortress."
Club president Mourad Boudjellal is also wary of the task facing his side but is relishing the opportunity to grace the greatest club rugby stage in the world. He bolstered his star-studded squad during the off-season, securing the signatures of All Blacks prop Carl Hayman, England winger Paul Sackey and former Wallabies international George Smith.
"It is great because it is the first time we have played in it and it is also important to me that the world comes to see the Stade Mayol," he said. "In France it is legendary but not in Europe and achieving that is very important to me."
But the club's owner underplayed his side's chances of capturing the European crown and admitted his own aspirations centre on winning the Bouclier de Brennus. "If I have a choice then it is the Top 14," he said. "But if we were to win the H-Cup then that will not be a problem. The aim is always to win and that is my dream to win everything, to have the Top 14 and perhaps one day the H-Cup. But for me the Top 14 is the most important."
The players are relishing the opportunity to grace the Heineken Cup stage, with fly-half Jonny Wilkinson in particular looking forward to returning to the tournament for the first time since he featured for Newcastle during the 2004-05 season.
"There is nothing bigger in terms of club rugby and what you don't want to do is go there and look out of your depth," he said. "The goal is to go there and give our best because those tournaments demand that of you which is why but you have to get the right preparation and dynamic. It's also a great test of your endurance as a club because you cannot afford to drop off for a second."
Wilkinson's team-mate Rory Lamont is also determined to lend his weight to the cause after an injury-troubled season and believes the 13,700 capacity Stade Mayol will be a key asset in the side's armoury.
"I know what away trips to Munster are like from my time in the Magners League and how hostile it can be with all the fans but equally the likes of Munster, Ospreys and Irish will be intimidated when they arrive here," the Scotland international said.
"It's something a little bit different from what you might have experienced at a club game back home in the UK. The atmosphere is second to none in terms of the volume of the crowd and they are pretty hostile towards the opposition."
Wilkinson is also confident that the team can maintain a push for glory in both the Top 14 and the Heineken Cup despite seeing his side come up agonisingly short on two fronts last season.
"I think like last year, we will go to win everything," he said. "I think the French do that well, teams like Toulouse or Biarritz were fighting on both fronts last year, and when they don't quite make it in one they can turn their attention to the other. That's what great teams do and that's what we did last season - we got knocked out in the semis of the Top 14 last season and went straight into the European final the next week. If you've got games to play at the very end of the season you know you are in the right place."
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.