The insatiable appetite of Boudjellal’s Toulon
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French and European title-holders RC Toulon on Thursday welcome one of the finest rugby teams in the southern hemisphere – South African champions The Sharks – for a friendly game that underscores the club’s stratospheric ambitions.
Toulon club president Mourad Boudjellal, who made his fortune as a comic strip publisher, remains a committed believer in superheroes.
His team, famously dubbed “The Galacticos” by British rugby commentator Martin Gillingham, have promised to sign a “fantastic four” from the upper echelons of world rugby this year.
The first of these is New Zealand’s Ma’a Nonu, the latest in a long series of rugby’s biggest names to help put RC Toulon at the epicentre of international club rugby.
The other three, not yet named, will also come from the All Blacks stable.
Last year the millionaire entrepreneur’s team were the French champions, won the Top 14 and successfully defended the Heineken Cup title they won for the first time the year before.
A truly international team
Toulon’s unstoppable ascension has relied heavily on the big guns of international rugby since Boudjellal took the helm in 2006, beginning with the signing of then All Blacks captain Tana Umaga along with a number of French internationals nearing the ends of their careers.
Boudjellal’s high ambitions showed immediate results, with Toulon remaining consistently at the top of the league since 2007 and now recognised around the world as the dominant force in French rugby.
Since then Toulon has added a steady stream of heavyweights, including South Africa’s Victor Matfield and George Gregan, the Australian scrum-half holding a record 139 caps for his country.
Toulon has also had a long and slightly chequered history with the English going back to 1793, when the city’s port was briefly controlled by British forces (before being ousted by a young Napoleon Bonaparte).
“Les Anglais” now have a more glorious role in Toulon’s sporting history: England hero Jonny Wilkinson played five spectacular seasons for the club before retiring in June 2014.
The England star fly-half would contribute to two European Cups in 2013 and 2014 as well as the 2014 French title, a victorious career accompanied by a team made up almost entirely of former international players.
He was joined in 2009 by fellow Englishmen Steffon and Delon Armitage. Steffon is still considered one of the best flankers in the French league. His brother Delon, despite being British, played for France’s under-16s (he was living with his parents in Nice at the time).
Wilkinson may have hung up his boots – he is now passing on his legendary kicking skills to Toulon’s back row as one of the club’s official trainers – but he keeps his front row seats as his club looks set to keep its position in the TOP 14 and the Champions Cup.
Their next international club match will be against England’s Wasps in April. Wilkinson, his boss Boudjellal and the whole of Toulon are all confident of scoring their third consecutive European victory.
Magic beyond the money
And while Toulon’s appetite for success is unrivalled in French rugby, the club is by no means the country’s richest.
The French National Rugby League (LNR) shows that rivals Toulouse started their 2014 season with €35 million in the bank, ahead of Clermont Ferrand with €27.9 million and Toulon with €25.37 million.
Being third on French rugby’s rich list hasn’t spared Boudjellal the suspicions of other clubs, notably Racing-Métro 92, whose owner Jacky Lorenzetti has consistently demanded that Toulon open its accounts and prove it isn’t surpassing the LNR’s strict salary caps for French professional rugby players.
Boudjellal responded with side-stepping verve worthy of his best players, telling the multi-millionaire Lorenzetti bluntly that Racing-Métro 92 “lacks the popular support Toulon enjoys”.
“It’s a bitter pill to swallow for Jacky Lorenzetti,” he told regional daily La Provence. “We’ve got supporters who pay to come and watch games. Racing-Métro 92 has to pay its supporters to come along – it’s Lorenzetti’s only innovation.”
Delighting the fans
Boudjellal, whose parents are Algerian and Armenian, is quite adept at showing the finger to the establishment.
In 2013 he told daily newspaper Sud-Ouest that the French Rugby Union had come of age during the German occupation under the collaborationist Vichy government, and said openly that the game was still infused with racism.
“I am quite convinced that I don’t have the same respectability as other club owners because of my background,” he said, adding that he had often been the target of racist taunts from the supporters’ terraces.
Boudjellal’s unashamed and belligerent attitude towards the sports media delights Toulon’s fans, who love a man whose achievements have put the city well and truly on the world map.
And if some French rugby enthusiasts would like to see a few more French players among the glittering line-up of international stars, they can take comfort in the effect Boudjellal is having on this rugby-mad city.
Toulon has become the destination of choice for players retiring from the French national team and looking for a fresh challenge in the dynamic environment that is every bit Boudjellal’s baby.
The feeling is echoed by his supporters’ signature chant: “Parce-que Toulon” (Because it’s Toulon).
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