Pre-season, Toulon style
August 12, 2010
Jonny Wilkinson prepares to enter the cauldron at the Mayol © Getty Images
"Ah! Nous les terribles guerriers du Pilou-Pilou"
The Stade Felix Mayol is rocking. The atmosphere is electric. A near-capacity crowd of over 13,000 are packed into the compact and cauldron-like stadium in downtown Toulon. The colour and intensity call to mind some of the epic European clashes of recent years yet the season has yet to begin. This is pre-season, Toulon style.
Within moments of arriving in town it is easy to see why so many of the sport's leading names - Tana Umaga, George Gregan, Victor Matfield and more recently Jonny Wilkinson - have been drawn to the club. Even without the financial muscle of club president Mourad Boudjellal, the warmth of the Mediterranean sun on your back would be enough to seal the deal for those perhaps more used to a February welcome at Kingston Park in Newcastle.
But the climate is just one of the attractions of a town where boat yards take precedence over car dealerships. Add in the culture and cuisine of the region and you have a tempting package complemented by the chance to play in the most demanding club rugby environment in the world. However, as alluring as these factors are, they are mere makeweights to add to the club's major selling point - the fans.
The stadium's location in the heart of Toulon goes some way to explaining the affection the people have for the club. They see their future in the town despite the ease at which they sell out the 60,000 capacity Stade Velodrome in nearby Marseille for high-profile matches. Le Toulonnais will return to the picturesque home of Olympique de Marseille for the Top 14 clashes with champions Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse this season but their home is very much the Stade Mayol. The stadium, a gift to the town from singer Felix Mayol, will soon be expanded to accommodate 22,000 if Boudjellal has his way. Little did M. Mayol know what he was creating by way of his generosity, with the modern match day experience more rock concert than music hall.
The passion of the fans is not lost on the players who revel in the adulation and the highly-charged atmosphere that greets them each match day. "Each town is very proud of its team and here in Toulon the fans are mad," said Argentinean recruit Felipe Contepomi. "The club is part of their culture, a part of their week and they are waiting for Saturday or whenever to come and support their team and go mad."
His thoughts were echoed by Englishman Tom May, who likened the match day experience to that of a football match in the UK. "You get off the bus on the main road and all the supporters make this tunnel for you," beamed the centre. "There's a few thousand people making that tunnel for you. It is quite surreal and having that kind of support is just brilliant."
Scot Rory Lamont has also seen this kind of intensity before - during his spells in Glasgow and Manchester. "The level of support that Toulon have here reminds me of Celtic and Rangers and United and City," he said. "It's a level of support where you sense the fans would die for the team. There may be only 13,000 in the stadium but the atmosphere is like the Millennium Stadium."
Any doubts about the uniqueness of the occasion are soon dispelled by the Pilou Pilou that sends the crow into a frenzy prior to kick off. The chant, led by a cheerleader and on one memorable occasion Boudjellal, is another throwback to days gone by but the crowd participation element serves to strengthen the bond between club.
Ah ! Nous les terribles guerriers du Pilou-Pilou
Keeping a close eye on proceedings at every turn is Boudjellal - a doting, father-like figure who has invested a lifetime into the club from fan to proprietor. Whether taking in a training session, accepting thanks from fans grateful for his generosity or prowling the touchline, his favourite place to 'watch my team', Boudjellal is such an integral part of all things Toulon you struggle to imagine time before the comic book publishers was at the helm.
And he is relishing the prospect of European rugby's biggest party - the Heineken or H-Cup - gracing the Stade Mayol stage for the first time. "It is important to me that the world comes to see the Stade Mayol," he explains. "In France our home is legendary but not in Europe and being that is important to me."
And you somehow sense that come the end of this season his latest dream will become a reality. Munster's visit in January is already shaping up as a classic-in-the-making before a ball has been kicked in the tournament while the clashes with Ospreys and London Irish will also ensure a stern test of their credentials and a feast for fans.
The fans' fawning is not just reserved for those on the field - especially when you happen to be a crowd favourite. For South African Joe van Niekerk, not even a slight injury, which ruled him out of the pre-season clash with Stade Français, or a call of nature could spare him. The club skipper was accosted at least a dozen times as he ran the gauntlet at half-time but it was not too much trouble for the perma-smiled Springbok who is evidently aware of the debt that he and the rest of the players owe those same fans.
Coach Philippe Saint-Andre has urged his players to harness that support and more importantly keep them happy. "The atmosphere is amazing and the fans love their rugby," explained the coach, "and I tell the players if you give 100% on the pitch then the supporters will give you back 500% - but if you only give 40% they will be unhappy. If you win the town is happy if you lose the town is depressed. It really is fantastic for the guys to play here but after last year they have high expectations."
On this particular occasion they went home happy following a 25-22 victory over one of their possible title rivals but the night did not end there. A post-match drink is a familiar part of the big match experience and Toulon is no different - except the fact that it takes place on the beach with the Med lapping at the shore. And if you're lucky enough you'll be joined by your favourite players and the president himself.
Multipower is the Official Sports Nutrition Supplier to RC Toulon. For sports nutrition tailored to your individual goals visit www.multipoweruk.com
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.