Toulon have been rewarded for their stroll through Pool 3 of the European Champions Cup with a home quarter-final against Wasps, and should they proceed, a semi-final against Leinster or Bath in the south of France.
Bernard Laporte’s side are on the brink of completing a historic and unprecedented three European Cups in a row.
No club side has ever boasted such riches and depth as the French Galácticos, and with more superstars, including a certain Ma’a Nonu, en route to the Stade Mayol next season, Toulon can boast a claim as the strongest club rugby side of all time.
The manner in which Toulon cantered through their pool, highlighted by the 60-22 drubbing of Ulster, had this writer thinking.
It is an interesting question, and one which should not be so easily dismissed. Given their dominance in Europe, would Toulon be capable of winning the World Cup, if they were to participate?
In football, there is not such a clear gulf in standard between the domestic and international game.
However, due to rugby’s relatively young age as a professional sport and how, until recently, money has not had a major say in the sport, means that the top domestic leagues are evenly matched, with no one league enjoying dominance where all the world’s top players flock to.
But as the big spenders flex their financial muscle, the likes of Clermont Auvergne, Racing Metro, and indeed Toulon are widening the gap from the chasing pack.
So let’s stray into the hypothetical. Would Toulon be good enough to compete for the Webb Ellis trophy?
They ooze quality all over the park. A strong pack is supported by the powerful pairing of Xavier Chiocci and Martin Castrogiovanni propping up the scrum.
Both will feature in the 6 Nations, and be cornerstones of their respective sides’ set-pieces. Carl Hayman also features heavily at tighthead prop, with the Kiwi captaining the side.
South African and Kiwi legends Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams are available in the second row, as French pair Jocelino Suta and Romain Taofifenua are viable alternatives to the aging pair.
The back-row adds further quality to an already impressive pack, with Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe of Argentina offering powerful runs from the base of the scrum.
At outhalf, Matt Giteau is enjoying the latter stages of his career, and has staked a claim among the world’s top outhalves.
While the Aussie has always struggled to be held in such esteemed company due to his kicking game, or lack thereof, the presence of Leigh Halfpenny at fullback solidifies Giteau’s attacking licence.
The outside back unit oozes class. Maxime Mermoz and Mathieu Bastareaud form a powerful pairing in midfield, while Bryan Habana and Delon Armitage have pace to burn on the wings.
Simply, Toulon are arguably the strongest club rugby side ever assembled.
So considering that Toulon are capable of fielding a XV of genuinely top-class international standard, would they compete against the elite sides in a World Cup?
We have seen club sides compete with international outfits in the past. Munster put it up to Australia and New Zealand recently, with a 15-6 victory over the Aussies in 2010, and a narrow 18-16 loss to he All Blacks in 2008.
Any arguments that these were second string sides fielded by the northern hemisphere giants may be dismissed as Munster were missing those on international duty.
In the context of this upcoming World Cup, it is a more open competition than its 2011 counterpart, mainly owing to the fact that New Zealand do not enjoy home advantage.
The All Blacks remain favourites, followed by hosts England, whose preparations are not all going according to plan. Ireland, Australia and South Africa also enter with ambitions of being crowned champions of the World.
But are Toulon far off this standard? Neither Ireland nor Australia boast scrums as strong as the French side, whereas the tactical nous and awesome flair of their back-line could cause England problems.
The Springboks are coming along steadily, but were off the pace against Ireland and Wales in November, and are not infallible.
As for the All Blacks, it is difficult to make a case for any side to outclass the reigning champions, but nonetheless it is not unfathomable that they could be matched by Bernard Laporte’s forces.
Club sides are capable of putting it up to the top nations in competitive fixtures, and given the raw class of this Top 14 outfit, it would not be far fetched to suggest that they would be there or there abouts were they to be competing in the Rugby World Cup next autumn.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena
Featured image By Johnjohn83var (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Read More About: Ali Williams, bakkies botha, bernard laporte, bryan habana, Carl Hayman, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, ma'a nonu, Martin Castrogiovanni, Mathieu Bastareaud, matt giteau, Maxime Mermoz, rugby world cup, Top 14, Toulon, Xavier Chiocci