Why Toulouse's victory over Leinster won't have come as a complete surprise to rugby nauses
Maxime Médard is a name that is new to no one.
The ageless wonder has been tormenting English and Celtic clubs for well over a decade in European rugby’s biggest club competition, as well as doing likewise to their international counterparts on multiple occasions.
Then, to reasonably close followers of French rugby, the likes of Julien Marchand and Sébastien Bézy will be well-known, having made their mark for the former four-times holders of the Heineken Champions Cup regularly over the last three or four seasons.
Ratchet the knowledge levels up slightly and the trio of Thomas Ramos, Clement Castets and Florian Verhaeghe will be ringing bells, all three of whom previously distinguished themselves with the French U20 side in recent years. Ramos and Verhaeghe, in particular, have translated their impressive age-grade careers relatively quickly into the senior ranks at Toulouse.
Finally, for the real nauses, you have Romain Ntamack and Selevasio Tolofua, two key contributors to France’s victory at the World Rugby U20 Championship in the summer, although both were making their mark for Toulouse last season, too.
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) October 22, 2018
In the starting XV against Leinster, Toulouse had seven academy products on show, with Castets, a Toulouse native and player who left Montpellier at the age of 20 to return to his hometown, taking the tally to eight and representing over half of the XV.
It’s a relatively high mark for Toulouse in recent years and shows a rediscovered faith in their storied academy, which once pumped out French internationals at a miraculous rate. With Medard the only one of the eight in his 30’s and Bézy the elder statesman of the remaining seven at 26, it speaks of young core that Toulouse are keen to build around. In fact, none of the other six are even over the age of 23.
Cyrill Baille would certainly have been added to this list if available, as would Gillian Galan, whilst the likes of Peato Mauvaka, Rodrigue Neti and Arthur Bonneval are also on the cusp. Again, all products of Toulouse’s academy.
It wasn’t specifically the number of homegrown players in the side on Sunday that caught the eye, it was the performances they put in against the reigning champions.
Up front, Marchand was excellent at both the set-piece and in the loose, whilst Verhaeghe combined the skill set of a modern second row forward with a bit of the menace that the Toulouse locks of old offered.
It was a European coming out party, too, for Tolofua, the younger brother of Saracens hooker Christopher. He is not the thumping, limited number eight of some previous Toulouse sides, but rather a livewire with the ball-handling skills to execute Toulouse’s ambitious playing style, sacrificing nothing in terms of tempo, mobility or ability to keep phases alive.
It should come as no surprise that these players are being trusted with integral roles at the club and encouraged to play with a frisson that has not been seen at the Ernest Wallon stadium in many years, when icons from the club’s golden era are presiding over the team in Fabien Pelous, Ugo Mola and William Servat, as well as the presence of Emile Ntamack in the academy.
The win over Leinster has highlighted that Toulouse have the core to be competitive, at home, at least, with anyone in the Champions Cup, and with the unsustainable recruitment and retention of the past five or six years seemingly over, the future looks markedly brighter for les rouge et noir.
Watch: Sam Smith speaks to a number of Kiwi players plying their trade in Europe, including Toulouse’s Jerome Kaino.
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