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Top 14: Toulon are the Galacticos of the rugby world

Martin Gillingham
Steffon Armitage 300x225 Top 14: Toulon are the Galacticos of the rugby world

Steffon Armitage is tearing up trees at No 7

The pass from Francois Steyn was fumbled forwards by a Racing Metro teammate and scooped up by former Hurricanes and Western Force wing David Smith. His pass was received by the League-turned-Union, part-Aussie-part-Pom, full-back Luke Rooney. Next to get his hands on the ball – but only for a moment – was the man himself, World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson.

Toulon were in their 22 but in a situation that placed them at their most threatening.

Turnover ball, the Mediterranean sun burning brilliantly above them, the going beneath good-to-firm, and a packed house at the Stade Mayol baying for Parisian blood. Rooney got it back a few moments later after a neat step and offload from France wing Alexis Palisson. Seizing the moment, Rooney made straight for a chink of light which had opened in Racing’s first line of defence. Palisson was tracking and collected the inside pass before meandering across field to link up with next-on-the-scene, 92-times capped Wallaby Matt Giteau who took the pass from his right and flicked it swiftly to his left to find Rooney again who sprinted the final 30 metres to score one of THE tries of the season.

It was 21 seconds of sublime brilliance which defines Europe’s most competitive league and, even without taking into account added extras like climate and ambience, is just why a season ticket in the Tribune Lafontan is always likely to hold its value longer than one in the Crumbie or Caterpillar.

Toulon are rugby’s galacticos, a band of international stars – one or two of them, admittedly, a year or two past their best – gathered under a single banner on the chequebook of a mildly eccentric owner, Mourad Boudjellal, who made his fortune from Marvel-style comics and who has dedicated himself to pioneering the resurgence of his hometown’s rugby team. And the current vintage is well-placed to do just that. Boudjellal and his similarly off-the-wall head coach Bernard Laporte were banging their fists in delight at Rooney’s score on Saturday from the confines of the LNR dog box having both been banned in recent weeks from entering either the dressing-room or standing on the touchline on match days.

Boudjellal’s suspension was prompted by remarks made in the aftermath of his side’s narrow defeat at Clermont Auvergne in January. “I had my first refereeing sodomy in the (2010) semi-final against Clermont. I’ve just had my second tonight,” Boudjellal ranted. “It appeared to hurt the first time but it was just as bad this time. We will review the images not on Youtube but on YouPorn.”

Laporte, a former member of the French government cabinet, was something short of ministerial in his criticism of another referee earlier this month and he too has been handed a ban which sidelines him until the end of the league phase.

In just about every other respect the season is going well for Boudjellal and Laporte. Their only significant long-term absentee remains Juan Martin Fernandez-Lobbe while the greatest skill demanded of them in their five remaining league games will be in avoiding a semi-final meeting with Toulouse on either June 2 or 3. With both semi-finals being played at the Stadium de Toulouse, the incentive to avoid the defending champions at that stage needs no explanation. But given that Toulon are scheduled to meet Toulouse at the Stade Mayol in the penultimate round of league matches there is – and I know this must come across all conspiratorial  – scope to “assist” Toulouse into a first place finish and thus make Wilkinson and co. more likely to face Clermont in the last four.

One certainty is that, after a year away, Toulon will be taking their place in next season’s Heineken Cup. And what a prospect at least two clubs in these parts face with a view to the pool phase.

Monsieur Boudjellal’s recruitment policy for next season is into full swing with the France and Perpignan centre Maxime Mermoz the latest name being linked to the expanded band of galacticos. What we certainly know is that Andrew Sheridan and Gethin Jenkins will be joining a new front row while Nick Kennedy will be rubbing shoulders with Bakkies Botha behind them. The back row talent being drafted in is significant with former All Black Chris Masoe moving over from Castres and Gareth Delve returning from his spell in Super rugby.

With Steffon Armitage tearing up trees at 7, the news that talismanic captain Joe van Niekerk has extended his contract by another two years will have Toulon fans purring. France internationals Nicolas Durand (from Racing Metro) and Fredy Michalak (Sharks) will serve as back-up to Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Wilkinson at 9 and 10 while Delon Armitage’s acquisition from London Irish will bolster the wing / full-back resources.

My advice? A Toulon ticket for next season is one worth holding on to.

ESPN rugby expert Martin Gillingham is the lead commentator for the broadcaster’s live coverage of the French rugby union championship, the Top 14. Visit espn.co.uk/tv for more information

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