When Mourad Boudjellal took over as Toulon President in 2006, he promised to build a French rugby dynasty.
A team that would go onto dominate both French and European Rugby winning three Heineken Cup/European Rugby Champions Cups, one top 14 championship and two Challenge Cup finals appearances.
The club have attracted a glittering array of international talent over the last decade but in the post Bernard Laporte world they’ve largely been rudderless.
Diego Dominguez came and went, in what was ultimately a forgettable three month spell with the club, before former Bath Head Coach Mike Ford took over the side on a permanent basis in October.
Ford was recently joined at Toulon by former Leicester Director of Rugby Richard Cockerill. The pair form one of the most unlikeliest duo’s in French rugby, and they have been tasked with reversing the fortunes of a side that looks like a shadow of its former self.
Under Laporte, Toulon were a clinical, ruthless team of stars that dominated for three straight years until Saracens assumed the mantle of the best team in Europe last season.
Toulon still have stars under Ford and Cockerill, you only need to take one glance at their backline for evidence of that, but despite their enviable collection of galacticos, they still lack any real substance.
Toulon may have the likes of Bryan Habana, James O’Connor, Mathieu Bastareaud, Leigh Halfpenny and Ma’a Nonu, but what’s the point in having Nonu if he insists on kicking aimlessly.
The 103 cap All Black centre is one of the best midfielders to ever play the game, but for whatever reason, he continually insists on trying to prove that he’s an astute and precise kicker, when that element of his game has notoriously been the weakest part of an otherwise stellar skillset.
Toulon have the starpower and the exorbitant salaries, but they were largely pushed to the brink by a Sale side that hasn’t won a game in this season’s Champions Cup.
Toulon rallied late to inflate a scoreline that was a lot closer than 27-12 may suggest, but Sale have won just three games this season in the Premiership and rested a host of frontline players.
Yet, with the Sharks having nothing to play for and with Toulon needing a big win to enhance their qualification hopes, it was the visitors who made the more lasting impression in the first-half.
— BT Sport Rugby (@btsportrugby) January 15, 2017
Sam James incredible chip and chase try was largely aided by the perfect bounce, but an inexperienced Sale side largely took the game to Toulon, led expertly by backrower Laurence Pearce.
Pearce’s 50 metres off seven carries provided Sale with a solid platform while the Sharks pack exposed Toulon’s weakness at the set-piece, with Rob Webber rumbling over the Toulon line from a line-out maul.
Nonu set up an early lead for the hosts when he crashed over in the right corner after just three minutes, and Habana capitalised on a poor Mike Haley mistake to score before Jonathan Pelissie and Josua Tuisova sealed the game with late scores, but Toulon were distinctly average, and not for the first time this season.
The magic of Laporte allowed the former French coach to expertly blend a team of stars into a star team, but under Ford and Cockerill they lack solid fundamentals and cohesion.
Granted, Ford and Cockerill will need to be given time together before their performances as coaches can be dissected, but ultimately, Toulon do not look like the force they once were, and at this stage, they don’t look like troubling the tournament’s top contenders, one of which they will need to face next week in Saracens.
With the exception of French captain Guilhem Guirado, Toulon’s tight five are noticeably weaker compared to Toulon teams of years goneby as Ford’s side often look weak up front.
The halves pairing of Sébastien Tillous-Borde and Pierre Bernard also seems to be problematic, however the return of Wallabies playmaker Matt Giteau may address their problems in that area, but ultimately, Ford and Cockerill have their work cut out for them if they are to guide this team to where Boudjellal expects them to be.
The three time champions may have secured the bonus point they so desperately chased against Sale, but the rest of the Champions Cup contenders will have sat up and taken notice of their weaknesses.
Toulon undoubtedly still have the talent to still pose a threat against any team in Europe, but their performances on the field aren’t matching up to what is expected of a side with such a star-studded lineup.
American cartoonist Bill Waterson once said that he ‘found his life a lot easier when he lowered his expectations’. Ford and Cockerill unfortunately do not have the same luxury.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena