Toulon still dreaming big
August 11, 2010
Toulon fans show their colours © Getty Images
"I know I am crazy sometimes, but it's good to be crazy sometimes because you can have some fantastic ideas. It is not always possible to make them a reality, but if you can then you can have a magical life."
Welcome to the world of Toulon's big-hearted and deep-pocketed president Mourad Boudjellal. The multi-millionaire comic book publisher and lifelong rugby fan has been the driving force behind the club's resurgence since trading his place in the stands for the boardroom - first as team sponsor and then owner.
In the last five years, with Boudjellal at the helm, the club have experienced a rollercoaster of emotions and this season promises even more drama with their Heineken Cup debut set to add to the excitement of a new Top 14 campaign. And on the eve of the new season, ESPNscrum dropped in to see what makes Toulon so special.
"My first idea was to do something incredible," recalls Boudjellal. "And for me the best player in the world was Tana Umaga."
The club had just been relegated out of the Top 14, after an all-too-brief and painful season in which they lost 23 of 26 games. Boudjellal was asked to step up his involvement.
"For me it was surely impossible," Boudjellal, whose own playing career did not extend beyond the PlayStation, said. "I did not know how a rugby club operated but for some reason I said yes." He also parted with the not-so-small-matter of € 7million for the privilege.
But his gamble paid off, as did his outrageous bid to lure All Blacks legend Umaga to the south of France. "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 with Toulon."
Boudjellal recalls that moment with the kind of enthusiasm that underlines the fact he is a fan first - owner second. "The season was not great," he swiftly adds, "but it was magic all the same because of him and I started to understand what I needed to do to have a good team."
The team's reputation as a cheque-book club was born and after a season of regrouping in ProD2, Boudjellal dug deep again to bring a stellar list of big-name players to the club. Former Wallabies captain and Rugby World Cup winner George Gregan, Springboks lock Victor Matfield, fresh from lifting the sport's biggest prize, former All Blacks hooker Anton Oliver and fly-half Andrew Mehrtens were all tempted to Toulon. Unsurprisingly the club secured promotion back to the top flight at the first time of asking.
Consolidation was the key on their return to the Top 14 but the headline-grabbing recruitment drive continued with the signing of former Kiwis rugby league star Sonny Bill Williams. Boujellal's talisman, Umaga, was handed the coaching reins. "The first season in the Top 14 was very difficult and I learned that Tana Umaga was not yet ready to give up playing - and that he's not a manager."
Boudjellal later lured former French international Philippe Saint-Andre from Premiership side Sale to coach the team. Joining Saint-Andre in swapping the Premiership stage for the Top 14 were a host of players, but most notably England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson.
"For me Jonny Wlkinson is an incredible player and I was sure that if he came to Toulon he would have no problem," he said with reference to the World Cup-winner's injury problems. "It was not a matter of money with Jonny Wilkinson. He was thinking the same as me."
The impact of Wilkinson's move caused tremors around the world. They were felt most in Toulon itself, with the rugby-mad populace embracing the latest gift from their benefactor. And in return for that adulation, Wilkinson steered the club to the brink of an unprecedented double only to see their Top 14 dream ended in the semi-finals by eventual champions Clermont Auvergne and hopes of European glory dashed in the European Challenge Cup final against Cardiff Blues in Marseille.
Boudjellal's money may have brought some of the world's biggest names to Toulon but he will be the first to tell you that it is the supporters that make the club special - not those who pull on the shirt. And he delights in retelling a story about the impact the club's fans had on veteran Matfield during his brief stint with the club in 2008.
"At the end of our last game in the second division [having gained promotion to the Top 14] Victor Matfield toured around the ground in front of the fans and told me that he had never seen anything like it before - yet six months previously he had won the Rugby World Cup with South Africa in Paris."
Umaga said an emotional farewell to the club at the end of last season but his place in the fans' hearts is assured -such is the role he played in restoring pride to the town. His face and name still adorn thousands of flags, T-shirts and shop fronts throughout Toulon but this club is bigger than just one man, bigger than even Boudjellal and his bank balance.
The people of Toulon are the lifeblood and that fact is as clear as a summer's day on any match day at their prized Stade Felix Mayol.
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.