2005 and 6th position sees French aristocrats Toulouse make their first appearance on our list. Toulouse’s third Heineken Cup victory was achieved, like all the others, under the astute leadership of Guy Noves with his star studded team.
Before the days of Toulon, Clermont and Racing Metro splashing huge amounts of cash, it was Toulouse who had an operating budget the envy of teams all across Europe, and under Noves’ watchful eye they had assembled a team of real stars. Indeed what sets Toulouse apart from the other teams that so far have made up this list is a teamsheet almost entirely comprised of established internationals, all in their prime.
Like most Noves teams, there was a strong French feel to Toulouse in 2005. Halfbacks Frederic Michalak and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde directed the play behind a forward pack led by two French captains, Fabien Pelous and William Servat. Their leadership was supplemented by fellow internationals Jean-Baptiste Poux and Christian Labit.
The backline continued the French theme, with household names from 11-15. Florian Fritz and Yannick Jauzion marshalled the centre, with Clement Poitrenaud and Vincent Clerc providing the finishing power outside. Interestingly, Toulouse are the second side in our countdown for whom Cedric Heymans would not make the starting 15 when the final eventually came around.
All of this Gallic flair was supplemented by Trevor Brennan at six and Gareth Thomas on the wing, two months before he would captain the Lions against New Zealand. Toulouse had endured a heartbreaking end to the 2003-04 season, losing the Top 16 semi-final by two points before Poitrenaud’s gaffe handed the Heineken Cup to Rob Howley and Wasps costing them their first European two-in-a-row.
The barren season left Noves under pressure to deliver silverware in 2005, and Europe seemed their best chance of doing so when their pool draw saw them avoid the continent’s big names. While there were no guarantees in a pool containing Northampton Saints, Glasgow and the Llanelli Scarlets, Toulouse entered the pool as hot favourites.
The Saints, champions in 2000, had the most European pedigree, but the 2005 version was a pale shadow of the team, which defeated Munster that day, reflected by their final league position, avoiding relegation from the Guinness Premiership by two points.
Toulouse opened their campaign with a tricky trip to Wales to face the Scarlets. Despite a poor performance, the French side mustered all of their experience and nous, as Elissalde kicked 3/3, in contrast to a horror show from the Llanelli kickers, to grind out a 9-6 victory.
Glasgow visited Stade-Ernest Wallon for round two and Toulouse really showed their teeth. The four try bonus point was secured by halftime, and was extended to a 6 try, 43-17 victory. Heymans converted his own try to add to four tries from the pack and one by out-half Michalak, all converted by Elissalde.
Northampton, however, would prove a more difficult task. After its expansion to 24 teams, no Heineken Cup champion ever finished the pool stage with a 100% record, and Toulouse blotched their copy book by going down 23-21 at Franklin’s gardens.
Despite outscoring the Premiership side two tries to one, Toulouse saw their indiscipline cost them as Paul Grayson’s boot, along with a late drop goal by Shane Drahm, consigned them to defeat and handed control of the pool to Northampton.
Seven days later, however, the tables were turned as Toulouse managed just one try through Poux, but the unerring boots of Elissalde and Michalak kicked six penalties between them for a 25-12 victory. With the hard work essentially done, Toulouse were able to cut loose in their final two group games, scoring 30 points and four tries away to Glasgow, before a spectacular 55-36 victory at home to the Scarlets gave them a home quarter final.
The match served notice to the rest of Europe of Toulouse’s quality on their march to a 3rd successive final as they entertained their fans by running from deep from the very first minute in a Michalak-inspired performance. A double from Poitrenaud and a penalty try at scrum time were added to a mixture of well worked tries from Fritz, Clerc and Thomas, before two pushover tries by the pack showed the many strings on Toulouse’s bow. In an almost unique anomaly, the quarter final seedings saw a repeat of a pool game, as Northampton returned to the south of France for a 3rd crack at Noves’ men.
By now, however, domestic struggles had well and truly sucked the life from the Saints, and Michalak gave another spectacular display of creativity and game management as Toulouse strolled into the semi-final on a 37-9 score line. Again sharing the kicking duties with Elissalde, Michalak got Toulouse on their way with an early intercept try and finished with a total of 14 points, including a sumptuous drop-goal.
Further tries from Heymans, Labit and Clerc meant Northampton were never in touch. The semi final stage, however, would see Toulouse at last take on one of Europe’s top dogs. They travelled to Walkers stadium to meet Leicester, led by legendary captain Martin Johnson, in what he hoped would be a fairy tale final season.
Despite qualifying as the no.8 seed, Johnson’s men had travelled to Dublin for the quarter final and hammered many people’s tournament favourites Leinster 29-13 and were riding high at the top of the Guinness Premiership. The loss of Pelous to injury added to the difficulty tenfold, as the captain’s armband passed to the in-form Michalak.
The perfect start was achieved however, as Toulouse unleashed their stunning back play in the opening minutes. A loose kick from Tigers scrum half Harry Ellis ended up in the hands of Clerc and Heymans, Fritz, Poitrenaud and Clerc again were all involved in a stunning counter attack which resulted in flanker Finau Maka crashing over for a try which Elissalde converted.
See Maka’s quality try at the beginning of this video:
Leicester battled back with three penalties from Andy Goode before a hugely controversial try set Toulouse on their way again. More good counter attacking from Poitrenaud and Jauzion sent the centre free with Elissalde in support. The final pass to the scrum half was clearly forward but the referee waved play on and Elissalde dived under the posts to restore a comfortable lead.
Toulouse were running riot now and only a spectacular tackle from Austin Healey forced Poitrenaud into touch as he looked to touch down in the corner. The game was eventually made safe in the dying minutes, as Michalak punished another poor kick with Toulouse’s 3rd try.
Tom Vardell responded late on, but it was far too little too late as Toulouse set up an all French final with Stade Francais, winning 27-19. Against Leicester, Toulouse had, as so many times before, captured the imaginations of fans across Europe with their exciting back play and counter attacking. The final however, would be an entirely different kettle of fish.
The 10th anniversary final of the tournament, staged in Murrayfield, saw two teams that knew each other inside out and was a tense affair. Neither backline was given an inch and Stade lead 12-6 at half time, with both Elissalde and David Skrela boasting 100% kicking records, before disaster struck for Toulouse.
Early in the second half Pelous failed to get back to his feet after a tackle and eventually hobbled to the side line, ending his involvement. Noves’ men had dealt admirably with the loss of their leader in the semi-final, but in such a tight, tense Cup final, his leadership would be missed even more.
Stade were also feeling the nerves however, as they edged ever closer to their first ever Heineken Cup title, and Toulouse stayed in touch when Elissalde narrowed the gap to three immediately following the break, which saw Pelous leave the field.
Now looking to the likes of Jauzion, Brennan and Michalak for inspiration, Toulouse did their best to put pressure on the nervy Stade, and twice thought they had scored, only to be foiled by a spectacular ankle tap on Fritz and a marginally forward pass calling back a Clerc break which looked set to lead to a try.
Their perseverance was finally rewarded however, 6 minutes into added time. Countering from inside their own 22, a kick form substitute Heymans gave Toulouse territory for one final attack, from which Stade eventually infringed, allowing Michalak to level and take the game to extra-time.
With momentum now on their side Toulouse had the upper hand in the added period, carving out another penalty for Michalak to score before a long range drop goal from their golden-boy gave them a six-point victory and their record 3rd title.
At 6th place on our list, Toulouse of 2005 represent the beginning of the really top quality teams. With International quality from 1-15, and Heymans making a huge impact off the bench or when chosen to start, they would provide a real challenge to any team that has graced the great competition.
What was most impressive about this team in contrast to many other Toulouse teams was their ability to mix exciting back play with efficient, ugly but effective rugby. Putting up big scores in the early rounds, and running Leicester off their feet away from home was impressive, but in the final when things got really tricky they were able to grind out a result without scoring a try, and all in the absence of their inspirational leader Pelous.
The likes of Michalak, Thomas and Poitrenaud, all players plagued by doubts about consistency and reliability throughout their careers, all had seasons to savour. Conversely however, the low quality of the final counted against Toulouse, and is one of the main factors which, eventually sees them fall just outside the Top five.
Another negative In comparison to some of the higher ranked teams is that Toulouse had a relatively easy run to the final, with their spectacular victory over Leicester the only truly massive hurdle on the way to a final against a Stade Francais team that did not show up to the best of its ability.
Toulouse Starting XV
15. France Clément Poitrenaud
14. France Vincent Clerc
13. France Florian Fritz
12. France Yannick Jauzion
11. Wales Gareth Thomas
10. France Frédéric Michalak
9. France Jean-Baptiste Élissalde
8. France Christian Labit
7. Tonga Finau Maka
6. Ireland Trevor Brennan
5. France Romain Millo-Chluski
4. France Fabien Pelous (c)
3. Argentina Omar Hasan
2. France William Servat
1. France Jean-Baptiste Poux
Gary Walsh, Pundit Arena