In what would be an early Christmas present to fans, Top 14 side Toulon are expected to confirm that New Zealand lock Sam Whitelock is set to join the club on a two-year deal after next year’s World Cup, at a press conference on Thursday, December 13.
A festive announcement ‘gift’ has become something of a tradition at Toulon, which is also reportedly close to agreeing a deal with All Black team-mate Nehe Milner-Skudder, according to reports in France. In fact, a double-wrapped Christmas package from New Zealand could be in store. The 2015 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year’s deal may even be confirmed alongside Whitelock’s, reports suggest.
According to French sports newspaper L’Equipe, Whitelock decided to reject a new deal from NZRU to make the move to France’s Mediterranean coast, following a meeting with Toulon recruitment representative Laurent Emmanuelli in Pretoria, South Africa, in October.
Whitelock, at least, is expected to be confirmed by president Mourad Boudjellal at a press conference on Thursday, where the club is expected to also announce major development plans for its training centre at Berg.
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Toulon have been busy in the player market this year. Earlier this season, key young players Anthony Belleau and World Under-20 championship winner Louis Carbonnel agreed new deals.
The club has also won the race for the signature of Bordeaux’s international scrum-half Baptiste Serin; and has persuaded Christopher Tolofua to head back to France from Saracens.
There may even be more deals to come, if – as reported – the Top 14 presidents and the LNR Steering committee move forward with plans to adopt a marquee player system. But 2018 Toulon is a more money-conscious animal than in recent seasons.
The Galactico days are long gone – Boudjellal does not have the resources to compete with the likes of Montpellier, Stade Francais, Racing 92, or indeed Lyon. It prompted him to suggest in 2017 that the club would embark on a ‘Made in France’ policy.
That hasn’t exactly materialised, but the new training and education centre means club has not given up entirely on developing young French talent.
Major investor at Toulon, Bernard Lemaître, told L’Equipe: “We have to start with another model … by continuing to build teams that integrate many more local, French and young talents, with always a few nuggets that we would look for to structure all this.”
Whitelock and Milner-Skudder, Julian Savea and Rhys Webb would be those nuggets in Toulon’s ambitious plan to return to the big time with a bang. Belleau and Carbonel, Anthony Meric and Swan Rebbadj may be at the vanguard of those French and young talents.
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