The rugby soap opera that is Toulon is set to take more major twists, with overarching storylines that will affect everything for years to come.
First, a disclaimer: For those old enough to remember these things, this is not – quite – Dallas’s Who shot JR? level, or Bobby Ewing’s miraculous shower resurrection. Nor have we reached UFO stage from notorious soapy serial killer hotspot Hollyoaks; or the first death of Eastenders’ Dirty Den – and we’ve definitely not hit St Elsewhere’s everything-was-all-a-dream finale.
But there can be no doubt that the daily lives and loves of everyday highly paid sporting folk on the south coast of France will never be the same again. And not just because Toulon are currently 11th in the Top 14, 26 points behind leaders Clermont and 14 off the play-off places.
Let’s start with the big one: Owner Mourad Boudjellal has revealed he will leave the club … in just over four years.
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Everything follows from this. The heart-on-his-sleeve boss revealed recently in an interview with L’Equipe that his final sure-to-be-a-tearjerker episode will come in June 2023.
“I have four years left and then, for sure, I’ll move on – if I don’t go, you have to shoot me down,” he said.
It probably won’t come to actual shooting, but he admitted owning Toulon taken its toll since he arrived as a fresh-faced comicbook baddie in 2006, when the club was in the second-tier ProD2. “If I don’t leave, it means I’m going to die. The life of a president is very stressful. But there is an addictive side: we know it’s not good, but we continue.”
But, like all good soap opera kingpins, he’s promised a few fireworks before he goes.
And they begin – in honest-to-goodness daytime soap-style – with a mass character cull. The 2018/19 has been, in Boudjellal’s own words, ‘a saison de merde’ – and he warned fans to expect to wade through more merde to come as the club realigns itself.
He has promised major changes in personnel coming soon to a screen near you, with between 12 and 15 arrivals and numerous departures in the pipeline ahead of next season – with some major announcements in the weeks to come.
“A big change is coming,” Boudjellal said. “I decided that after the defeat in Edinburgh, when I posted the video of Snow White cleaning on Twitter.
— Mourad Boudjellal (@mouradrct) October 20, 2018
“It’s time to bid farewell to guys who may not have been European champions. That way, we can stop talking about the past, stop comparing. I’m going on a new project. In the coming weeks, there will be many announcements in both directions.”
Eight of those 12 to 15 arrivals have already been confirmed, headlined by Eben Etzebeth, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Baptiste Serin. Importantly, for French player-quota regulations as much as Boudjellal’s ‘new project’, five are French. Six are under 25 and none are over 30.
Montpellier-bound 32-year-old Guilhem Guirado is the big departure after five years at the club, while Malakai Fekitoa is on his way to Wasps. To date, five players are known to be leaving at the end of the season. Apart from Georgian academy hooker Badri Alkhazashvili, all are over 25.
And, looking to Boudjellal’s ‘new project’: Juandre Kruger, Mamuka Gorgodze, Francois Trinh-Duc, and JP Pietersen are among seven players at the end of their contracts. Some may get new deals but the trend appears to be for younger players.
Boudjellal’s comments also suggest the club is willing to do a Stade Francais, and agree terms to cut loose other players who are not yet in the final year of their current deals.
Wales fans may hope, despite his recent tweets to the contrary, this means Rhys Webb could head home sooner than expected. But one favourite for the exit door is Josua Tuisova. Rumours have been swirling over his future at the club for more than a year – with Lyon, in particular, repeatedly said to be keen on his services.
The youth factor was lost in the headlines when Etzebeth and Milner-Skudder were revealed as future Toulon players in December. A new centre will be developed to replace the prefabs sprouting all over the training ground at Berg. It will be operational by 2020.
The idea is to build what the club and Boudjellal have billed as a “factory of champions”.
“Not a single talent from the region should escape us,” the president said at a special meeting to unveil the plans in December.
“We want a reference system and standards for all youth teams with the RCT label. With the desire to put players at the centre of the system but also to promote in-house training for educators,” added Laurent Emmanuelli, head of sports policy at the club.
“I signed up for a club project,” Patrice Collazo said at the time “The main axis is to put the institution back at the centre of everything. To know what it means to play for this club, to embody its values.
“The RCT must regain a strong identity that encompasses everyone from mini rugby to pros, but also alumni. The sports project will be based on a team built with players from the training centre and the region, but also with the possibility of seeking skills with a margin of progress in the Top 14 or Pro D2.
“And finally, foreigners who bring real added value”.
Boudjellal has spoken of his ‘Made in France’ vision of Toulon’s future previously. But this was the first concrete development towards that future. In it, big-name overseas stars have been reduced to third in the list of priorities, behind local, then French players.
The President’s 2023 ‘retirement’ was the culmination of a series of events that had a certain inevitability about them.
His big-spending quickly catapulted Toulon out of the ProD2 and into the upper echelons of the Top 14. A ProD2 championship in 2008, a Top 14 crown in 2014 and three European titles (2013, 2014, 2015) is a pretty decent return in 13 years. Remember, too, that the club were domestic finalists in 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017, and Challenge Cup runners up in 2010 and 2012.
But the trophy cabinet has been bare since 2015. And, though Toulon had famously been self-financing for several years, Boudjellal was forced to dig deep in 2017, when a legal dispute with former kit suppliers attracted the interest of French rugby’s financial police. He took a greater stake in the club for his €2million bailout.
It was then he first announced his new homegrown ‘model’ for the club. The logic is undeniable. Toulon were struggling to keep pace with the billionaire-owned likes of Racing 92 and Montpellier. Lyon, too, have increasingly had money to burn, so Boudjellal started casting about for other investors to share the load.
He found that support last year, in the shape of ex-biopharma company boss Bernard Lemaître, who bought a 25% stake in the club – and who looks almost certain to be the next president, when Boudjellal finally exits, stage left.
Since then changes have come thick and fast, as Lemaître began to stamp his own mark on the club. “We are on a five-year development plan; the goal is to get Toulon back the level it once had, but with different structures and organisation that, beyond Mourad Boudjellal and Bernard Lemaître, will allow it to continue,” he told L’Equipe in December.
Five years. Well, actually less. Boudjellal told fans at the meeting at which the new training complex, Etzebeth and Milner-Skudder were unveiled that season-ticket holders who kept the faith for four years would get their fifth season ticket free if the club had won no silverware in that time.
We’ll just have to wait and see on that one.
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