When you reach the top there is only one way to go – down. This is where Top 14 giants Toulon now find themselves.
When speaking of Europe’s top club rugby sides, French team Toulon will always be part of the conversation. Established in 1908, it has only been since the acquisition of the club by rich local businessman Mourad Boudjellal in the early part of the last decade, that Toulon began the process of establishing itself as the top team in Europe.
Using a massive injection of money by Boudjellal, the hands-on president made it clear that he wanted the world’s best rugby players to wear the red and black of his beloved team.
Starting with All Black Tana Umaga, Toulon have gone on to secure the services of the likes of Ma’a Nonu, Steffon and Delon Armitage, Mathieu Bastareaud, Matt Giteau and Bryan Habana.
All these name, with the exception of Umaga, are still part of the current Toulon set-up. It’s a veritable dream team in rugby terms.
Up until 2014, Toulon were guided from the fly half position by England’s World Cup-winning hero Jonny Wilkinson and following his retirement from the game the Top 14 side were quick to bring in the prodigious talent of Welshman Leigh Halfpenny.
No club in Europe can match the wages that Boudjellal has been willing to pay in order to fulfil his ambition of making Toulon the very best. While not comparable to footballer’s wages, contracts worth in excess of €500,000 per year have been routinely offered in order to attract the world’s best players.
Success was certainly soon to follow. Having been promoted to the Top 14 in 2008, the team from the south of France has never looked back.
The club were runners up in the Top 14 in both 2012 and 2013 before finally summiting the mountain and taking the title in 2014.
On the European stage success has been swift and devastating. Runners-up in the Challenge Cup series in 2010 and 2012, domestic success saw them elevated to the Heineken Cup/European Champions Cup in 2013.
Not content to find their feet, Toulon fixed an iron grip on the competition and became the first side to win the title on three consecutive occasions.
Toulon were the undisputed kings of Europe.
The 2015/16 season has seen clouds forming on the horizon for the club, however.
Star fullback Halfpenny has been absent all season with a cruciate ligament injury, sustained last September during a World Cup warm up game against Italy. With the Welshman only now returning to fitness, he has missed 23 rounds of the Top 14 season.
With only three to go before the play-offs, he may well find himself struggling to make an impression this season.
Reports have also surfaced of the desires of star Number 8 Steffon Armitage to return to the English Premiership so that he might become eligible for England once again. Winning a Grand Slam might well do that to an overseas English man who could walk into the national side.
This is the first big name to voice a desire to leave Toulon since they became the cash rich behemoth that has laid waste to all before them.
On the field things are not going as well as they have become accustomed to in recent seasons either. Sitting third in the Top 14 standings, behind Montpellier and Clermont with three games to go, they are by no means safe in their play-off spot.
On the European stage it was almost surreal not seeing the red and black jerseys lining out for the European Champions Cup final last weekend, a game which saw Racing 92 defeated by English Premiership side Saracens.
Admittedly while there is still much to play for in the Top 14, Toulon may be facing into the first season since the 2010/11 campaign without top tier silverware.
As the revised European Rugby model takes hold, giving English and French sides a more balanced qualification quota when compared to the Pro 12, plus with the increased television coverage and the resulting monies that will come in, Toulon’s financial advantage has dwindled in the last couple of seasons.
Where before it was only Boudjellal who could offer the big money contracts, now the likes of Racing 92, Clermont and a raft of English Premiership sides can match the once unheard of contracts routinely offered by the French giants.
For the first time this decade there appears to be chinks in the steadfast armour of RC Toulonnais. Still giants of the game and with a world-class and enviable squad, they are no longer alone at the top of the pile.
Having lost their European Champions Cup title this season all eyes are now on the club. Having been to the top of the mountain, having stayed there for so long, the question now is, are they about to suffer the bumps and bruises of the inevitable descent that follows?
Gary Brennan, Pundit Arena
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