Coming in at number three on our list of Heineken Cup heavyweights is the Stade Toulousain side of 2010. A team packed with talent, this Toulouse side dominated Europe’s premier tournament.
No.3 Stade Toulousain (2010)
When the short history of the Heineken Cup is told in future generations it will be remembered that Munster brought the romance, Leicester the professionalism and the dominant Leinster and Toulon teams of later years brought the standard to a new level.
The most successful team in the history of the competition however, will always remain Toulouse. Six final appearances and four victories leaves all of Europe’s great clubs in the shade, and what is truly astounding is that all were achieved under the guidance of the legendary coach, Guy Noves. So it is to Toulouse, and 2010, that we turn at no.3 in our countdown.
Similar to team no.6 on our list, the 2010 version of Noves’ Toulouse empire was based around a solid foundation of French internationals, mined from the lower echelons of the Top 14 in the days when Toulouse’s operating budget and success allowed them to bully their fellow French clubs in the player market.
Before the nouveau-riche of Clermont, Racing and Toulon began to splash the cash, lining out in the red and black of Toulouse was the ultimate achievement for any French club player, and the roster for the 2009-20120 season reflected this.
The Toulouse pack was one of the fiercest in Europe, led by William Servat at hooker and possessing in Thierry Dusautoir the best European flanker of his generation. New signing Louis Picamoles added further power, while front row options including Jean-Baptiste Poux, Benoit Lecouls, Daan Human and Samoan behemoth Census Johnson meant that Toulouse possessed a scrum full of internationals which would take all opposition apart as the season went on.
The backline was even more star studded, and reads as a who’s-who of bona-fide stars of French rugby in the last decade. Clement Poitrenaud, Maxime Medard, Yannick Jauzion, Florian Fritz and Vincent Clerc would all have huge roles to play throughout the season and amazingly, for the third time on this list, Cedric Heymans is a part of a winning team but had to be content with a place on the bench for much of the season.
Finally, unlike a large percentage of Toulouse teams down through the years, Noves had assembled an impressive array of reliable, high quality half backs, as Jean Baptiste Elissalde and All Black Byron Kelleher traded the no.9 jersey and David Skrela had the only truly top quality season of his career. With such an array of stars Toulouse entered the season as one of the favourites for the tournament, as they sought a record 4th title.
Though they managed to avoid many of Europe’s real heavyweights in the pool stage, Toulouse would nonetheless need to be on top of their game to ensure progression from a pool with the improving Cardiff Blues; Sale Sharks and the Dean Richards led Harlequins.
A look at the team sheet for their opening game against the Sharks shows the incredible strength in depth Toulouse possessed, as Elissalde lined up at out half and there were appearances from players such as Frederic Michalak and Yannick Nyanga who would play no part at the business end of the tournament. Meanwhile the bigger names in the backline were forced into supporting roles as Yves Donguy helped himself to two tries.
The home side cruised to a comfortable 36-17 victory to get their tournament off to a perfect start and let the rest of Europe know that they meant business after a few years of underachievement. Donguy’s good form continued in the second round, as he finished off a flowing move for a fine try which helped Toulouse out of a sticky situation at The Stoop. A good Harlequins performance had Toulouse on the ropes, but 3 penalties from 3 separate players in the form of Elissalde, Michalak and Fritz in the dying minutes saw them over the line 24-19.
Toulouse travelled to Cardiff for Round 3 high on confidence, but like so many teams on this countdown, an unfortunate slip-up against an inferior team cost them a 100% pool record. In a game without any tries, a huge error count ultimately cost Toulouse as Mike Blair booted the Blues to a crucial 15-9 victory. The chance of the perfect season was gone, but normal service was resumed six days later, as the mercurial Michalak was the star of the show, kicking five penalties and a fine drop goal to add to Dusautoir’s try in a 23-7 win.
With Elissalde restored to the side in place of Michalak, Toulouse really began to motor in Round 5, as a four-try, 33-21 win over Harlequins confirmed their progression and made Europe sit up and take notice. Elissalde was again the hero in round 6 as he kicked his side to a 19-13 win away to Sale and a home quarter final.
Unfortunately for Noves’ men however, their placing did not mean a handy quarter-final draw, as the last eight saw their domestic rivals Stade Francais rock up to the Stade Municipal. Despite being shocked in Edinburgh in their final game, Stade had managed to top their group, and fancied their chances of doing damage with a backline build around a young Mathieu Bastareaud and the in-form Lionel Beauxis. Indeed Stade had the better of the opening half, as Rodrigo Roncero forced his way over for a try and Toulouse were restricted to penalty attempts from distance. This Toulouse side were high on leadership value however, and with the final attack of the half Jauzion burrowed his way over to give his side a scarcely deserved 13-10 halftime lead and shell shock the Stade players and support.
Toulouse kept their noses in front, before a quality blind side move involving Kelleher, Jauzion and Heymans eventually saw Patricio Albacete crash over to make the game safe. With Stade taking risks, Toulouse was able to turn on the style and scored a wonderful late try through Heymans to make the game safe. If you can bear the repetitive music, you can see all 3 tries here.
With their domestic rivals out of the way, Toulouse moved on to the greatest challenge they would face in their victorious season, Brian O’Driscoll’s Leinster. The province were in the middle of a run of three Heineken Cup titles in four years and were everybody’s favourites to retain the title the won so impressively against Leicester in 2009.
Toulouse would once again be at home for this tie, and they received another boost before kick-off from a moist unlikely source. They had Clermont Auvergne to thank for the absence of Leinster playmaker Johnny Sexton, as the fly half fractured his jaw in his side’s hard-fought quarter final win.
Without Sexton pulling the strings, Leinster lacked the penetration to break down the Toulouse defence, and a cagey game ensued. Toulouse led 9-6 at half time through the boot of Skrela, as Leinster’s scrum began to creak noticeably. That creak turned into a full blown fracture in the second half, as first Lecoul and Human, and later Poux, took Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Stan Wright apart in a dominant performance.
This dominance soon took its effect on the game as a whole, with Toulouse dominating territory and finally getting the scores to make the game safe through Jauzion and Skrela. Jamie Heaslip did manage a try for the champions, but the damage had been done and Toulouse were full value for their comfortable 26-16 victory.
This victory made Toulouse scorching hot favourites for the final, as they travelled to Paris to face an ageing Biarritz side who had stumbled their way through the tournament before Dimitri Yachvili inspired them to an 18-7 victory over a hugely off colour Munster in the semi-final.
Europe expected a comfortable victory from a superior Toulouse team, but possessing players of the quality of Yachvili, Imanol Harinordoquy and Damian Traille, Biarritz were never going to go down without a fight.
These players were well versed in the ways of knockout rugby, and had won three French titles in the preceding 7 years despite constantly battling against teams with superior resources. Unsurprisingly they worked hard to stop Toulouse getting any kind of rhythm, and had the better of the opening exchanges, as Yachvili kicked them into an early 9-3 lead.
Toulouse had struggled to find their feet, but on the 20 minute mark Fritz roused his troops with a mammoth penalty from inside his own half to get them off the mark. Skrela levelled matters before Fritz again stood up to be counted with a drop goal on the stroke of half time. Without ever settling into the game or really getting going, Toulouse were 12-9 up and Biarritz knew they were unlikely to find themselves 6 points ahead again.
The game continued as a war of attrition and discipline in the second half, and Biarritz staunchly held on to Toulouse’ coattails with resolute defending. Finding no way around, Noves men realised they would have to get over the line any way they could, and Skrela took the game by the scruff of the neck, kicking 2 further drop goals when the Biarritz defence refused to yield anything more. The out half added another penalty to apparently make the game secure, before some nervous moments after rugby league convert Karmichael Hunt brought the gap back to two points. Toulouse held on however, and despite underperforming in the final, Noves had his record 4th Heineken Cup title.
On paper, Toulouse 2010 ranks with any team to win the Heineken Cup. So star studded was their team that guys like Freddie Michalak, Cedric Heymans, Louis Picamoles and Census Johnson didn’t get a sniff of action in the final.
They were possibly the first example of a team of bona fide international stars from 1-15, a trend built upon by Leinster and Toulon in recent years. The only team to knock Leinster out of the Heineken Cup over a four-year period, the nature of their knockout victories also contributes to their high placing on this list.
Spectacular back play took apart Stade Francais, before dominance in the set piece saw them get the better of Cheika’s men.
Finally in the final, Toulouse showed themselves to possess that most crucial quality in knockout rugby, the ability to pull out a result by any means necessary. Playing against a Biarritz team which made its name bringing down teams with higher reputations, Toulouse eked out the points they needed to get over the line, notably scoring no tries but becoming the only side to ever score three drop goals in a Heineken cup final. This ability to adjust their style of play to any challenge and ultimately to win at all costs makes Toulouse 2010 a worthy addition to our Top 3.
Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena.