Archive for the ‘Toulon’ Category


“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often”. 

This phrase encapsulates a mantra all teams live by. Just like Tiger Woods changing his swing when he was World Number 1, a team at their peak must change their game in order to stay on top. 

The Heineken Cup ended three seasons ago, and thus, the Champions Cup was born. Throughout its infancy, there has been many complaints about the new-look European competition. Being honest, last year’s competition failed to excite me in any real way. But this year is different.

In the penultimate round of this year’s competition, every game seems to be bringing about a change in the top eight. The qualification table has changed a number of times since Friday evening and will continue to do so until the final game is played next week. This is what the fans of European rugby want; a competition in which their team must continue to produce at the highest level in order to qualify.

But there are still a couple of problems in this competition, problems which can be easily eradicated to both the players’ and fans’ benefit and enjoyment.

I’ve long campaigned that Treviso and Zebre should not have a place in the Champions Cup unless it has been earned through merit, and this has been more obvious than ever this weekend.

Connacht have suffered a high number of injuries this season. So many, in fact, that I reckoned that Zebre (after conceding seventy points to Leinster the week previous) may be in with a shout in their second European meeting. Connacht proved me to be magnificently wrong.

Playing with a scrum-half in the outhalf position, Connacht put 66 points past a poor Zebre side to go from third in their group to first and stormed their way into the qualification table. Between their two clashes, Connacht won 118-28. Not to mention Zebre also shipped 82 points to Wasps in their opening round.

I’m not here to poke fun at Zebre’s ability, but I am highlighting that the Italian teams are way out of their depth in this competition. As Andy Goode tweeted this week, this competition is for the European elite, and having poor Italian teams included just belittles the competition. 

Fine, you can argue that Northampton and Montpellier both shipped big losses to Leinster this season too, but it’s not the same argument. Neither side have been consistently poor in Europe.

The Champions Cup organizers need to change the qualification process for the Pro 12 teams. Including Zebre because they finished above Treviso in the league isn’t saying the stronger Italian team is being included; it’s saying the better loser is.

Both teams should be included in the Challenge Cup until strong enough to compete with the European elite. Simple as. This would strengthen the competition and avoid more embarrassment to players who, you can be assured, are doing their best. It would also end the idea that teams lucky enough to draw an Italian team are guaranteed circa ten points.

Zebre may not even be a team next year, as a centralized team in Rome is the aim for Italian club rugby  at the moment. But that newly-formed team, whenever it may come, should be forced to prove itself in the Chllange Cup before gaining entry into the Challenge Cup. Organizers should be learning from mistakes.

The second problem is the division of games between Sky Sports and BT Sports.

As I type this, I am missing Toulon v Sale, a game which has some of the world’s best players on show. Why? Because I’ve already paid a subscription to one sports channel.

European rugby is an expensive business for fans. New jerseys seem to be coming out every year, meaning parents are under pressure when their kids see their idols’ new uniforms. Away games can mean expenses such as plane tickets, accommodation, match tickets, food, etc. Home games aren’t cheap either. But that’s accepted. It’s part and parcel. 

What’s unacceptable is that fans who stay home are forced to fork out two subscriptions to two different channels in order to watch one competition. 

Champions Cup organizers should not divide the rights to the competition. It adds an extra cost to fans who already give their all to follow their teams, and put simply, it is unfair to impose that extra cost on fans to pay the wages of pundits they never wanted in the first place. 

The TV rights are up for renewal this summer and apparently they will not be shared again between two subscription channels. This needs to be imposed in order to continue to win over the public. It would be a very simple solution to what is a big issue.

The Champions Cup has been going from strength to strength and is finally capturing the imagination of fans again. But there are changes to be made. After all, to change is to improve.

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On the 23rd October, 2011, a little over 61,000 people travelled to Eden Park to watch the world cup final between France and the hosts, New Zealand. France’s tournament had been marred by rumours that Marc Lièvremont had lost the dressing room.

The year previous, Lièvremont coached France to a grand slam in the 2010 Six Nations championship, which was a fantastic achievement for a team ranked 8th in the world in mid-2009. The following tournament did not reflect this success, with England losing to England and, for the first time in their history, Italy. To add insult to injury, France had been leading Italy by 12 points with 20 minutes of the game remaining.

France were a super power in world rugby, the fifth best team in the world by official rankings. But their style of play was probably only second to New Zealand. They were famous for running the ball from deep, offloading as often as possible, and their belief that they could score from anywhere. But they should have also have been able to close that game out. The omens were not looking good for the world cup.

France went on to beat Wales in the semi-final of the 2011 world cup, and the assistant manager took the press conference instead of Lièvremont. Lièvremont, however, did go on to label some of his players as “spoil brats” after they celebrated the Wales win. It seemed the wheels were starting to fall off the French carriage.

France went on to lose the final to the hosts, and that’s when everything came into the spotlight. Imanol Harinordoquy criticised Lièvremont heavily and stated the team had managed themselves from the pool stages onwards. One would just have to look at the out-half choices during the tournament; playing Parra out of position and leaving François Trihn-Duc, a specialised 10, on the bench just shows not all was right during the tournament.

Lièvremont was quickly dropped after the tournament and in came Phillipe Saint-Andre, who was a French legend in his playing days. Unlike his predecessor, Saint-Andre managed a win against Italy in the 2012 Six Nations, but losses to England and Wales, with a draw against Ireland, resulted in France finishing fourth in the tournament.

The following tournament was even more damning for Saint-Andre and French fans. France lost their first three games, 18–23 against Italy, 6–16 against Wales and 13-23 against England. A 13-13 draw with Ireland and a 26-13 victory over Scotland offered a glimmer of hope, but it didn’t prove enough and France finished the tournament in last place.

The 2014 tournament didn’t offer the French followers much either. An unconvincing win over Scotland with losses to Ireland and England seemed reflective of 2013. But against England, France did play with the flair they seemed to have lost, running the ball from deep and offloading at will. But the history books will only show they allowed England to score over 50 points.

What is to blame for this decline? The coaches can’t take all the blame. Lièvremont coached Les Blues to a grand slam even if he did lose the dressing room afterwards. Saint-Andre may have installed a game plan not suitable for the players, but with the likes of Dusatoir as captain, the players have the skill to change it on the pitch.

The lack of young French-born players coming through the club system is also a factor. If you look at Toulon, not many French players appear in their first XV, with Bastareaud probably being the most noteworthy. The billionaire owner doesn’t seem too worried about this and is making his Top 14 side as comical as his work in terms of their signings. If they continue the way they are going, other teams won’t have enough players to field a team against them.

Clermont have the luxury of having the best centre partnership in France with Rougerie and Fofana, which benefits the national team. Having Bastareud play inside of an English or Australian player doesn’t.

A shining light in all of this is this year’s Top 14 champions. Stade Francais fielded ten French born players in their final against Clermont Auvergne last week. They had also beaten Toulon in the semi-final to get there.

But winning a Top 14 is a lot different to winning a world cup. It is a different standard of play, with a much faster pace and higher intensity. Not all of those ten players are of international standard either.

It would suit the French team if the world cup didn’t take place until the following year as Stade Francais could really test themselves against Europe’s finest. These players would benefit massively from weekly games against European giants, which would in turn benefit the national team.

Taking nothing away from the ten months of hard graft it took to win the Top 14, Stade Francais’ progress will be tested in next year’s Champion’s Cup. But the national team will be tested in September. They need a coach who will select the best players in their respective positions, and install a game plan that players are comfortable with.

Ireland, Italy, Canada and Romania will be France’s opposition in the pool stages so getting out of the group is the least they should expect. But that aside, big clubs must follow suit and adopt Stade Fancais’ practice for the future benefit of French rugby.

Any speculation regarding where O’Connell’s future lay was put to bed yesterday when he officially penned a two-year-deal with the French giants Toulon. Rumours, started by Medi Olympique, were circulating that the second row may only be signed after the world cup as an injury joker. But rumours are rumours and they were wrong.

O’Connell will join a plethora of superstars for the post-RWC season and he was released from his IRFU contract. It’s believed his international rugby may come to an end after the world cup as well. But let’s think about this for a minute.

A certain Irish 13 was ready to retire a couple of seasons ago, up until chants of “one more year” rang around the RDS. It was also no secret that Joe Schmidt encouraged him as much as the Leinster crowd.

But wasn’t Schmidt the Irish coach at that stage? He was indeed, and he had a different reason for encouraging O’Driscoll to play: the All Blacks were coming to town.

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Granted, Schmidt knew any 13 coming in to replace BOD would benefit hugely from his tutelage. But wouldn’t he rather have his experience on the field rather than shouting advice off it?

There is absolutely no denying O’Connell’s presence. Many players have openly stated that he colossal in character as well as in person. Most recently, Munster’s CJ Stander spoke about the encouragement O’Connell gave him at the start of his Munster career. The man studied Afrikaans so as to better understand South Africa’s lineout calls. Dedication isn’t even the word.

On Lions’ tours, injured players are sent home to make room for replacements. Even on that fabled tour to New Zealand in 2005, the captain, the Irish 13 previously mentioned, travelled home due to a shoulder injury (he chose to go, admittedly).

But on the last tour, O’Connell broke his arm and was asked to stay by management. His captaincy was just as important off the field. The Lions won the series, 2-1.

O’Connell’s Toulon contract will expire in the summer of 2017, right around the time of the next Lions tour. The destination? New Zealand.

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Much like O’Driscoll and Schmidt, I’m positive the future Lions’ coach would only love to use the second row’s experience. For those who think he will be too old, he will still have fuel in the tank for this. Being selected for the Lions is a dream come true, let alone for this tour.

A successful Lions’ series in New Zealand. Now that would be some way to go out.

Pictures thanks to http://www.skysports.ie and http://www.the42.ie