All the talk on Monday was of the weekend’s results; Toulouse losing to the bottom-placed English side Northampton, Munster losing to Castres and Bourgoin shipping 92 points to Leinster, and even Bath losing to Italian side Treviso. But that’s what the Heineken Cup is all about: big upsets, teams like Treviso having their one big chance of getting respect and recognition throughout Europe.
However it was the manner of Bourgoin’s defeat to Leinster, and to some extent Toulouse’s defeat at Northampton and Perpignan’s defeat to the Gwent Dragons, that led to people commenting that the French teams have no respect for the European Cup. Well, I can’t really speak for Bourgoin but it certainly does mean a lot to Toulouse.
On Monday morning this week we had a video session first thing of the defeat to Northampton. Normally we would train first and look at the video later in the morning at about 11.30. But this was to be no normal video session.
It started at 10.00, and all the players were joined by the coaching staff and the president of the club. Our head coach, Guy Noves, went through the faults in the performance. It was definitely a game we could have won, and won well; knock-ons and basic handling errors close to the line. He wanted to know why this was happening, why players were doing this. Omar Hasan was sinbinned for ten minutes, in which time Northampton scored ten points. He said this was totally unacceptable.
At the end of the session, the president gave a speech explaining how Europe was very important for the club’s sponsorship. Two years ago we had earned one home quarter-final and one home semi-final, and last year another home quarter-final. The resulting gate receipts, prize money from ERC and sponsors’ bonuses were very important to the club.
In the last two years Stade Toulousain have built virtually a whole new 20,000 seat stadium at the Ernest Wallon, new offices, new corporate boxes and this year alone they’ve added on a newly built gym, and have knocked down the old sponsor’s tent and replaced it with a fantastic new state-of-the-art tent with air conditioning which holds over 3,000 people.
The club have also built a new all-weather pitch at the back of the stadium at a cost of EUR400,000 and a training area alongside that pitch. There’s also a new club shop in the stadium, new bureaus, a new centre of information for young, up-and-coming players, a new car park and there are plans for a new running track.
The president explained that results mean everything, that the club is supplying the best of everything to get these results, that the team couldn’t continue losing matches like last Saturday’s, and that a home quarter-final was vital to the continuing growth of the club.
Hearing the widely held view from home that the French teams don’t really care about the European Cup, and that the domestic league is all they care about, is ridiculous. Two seasons ago you had two French teams in the final, last year you had two French sides in the semi-finals and one in the final.
From my experience the leading French teams _ Toulouse, Stade Francais, Biarritz, Perpignan and Castres _ care very much about the European Cup.
Bourgoin are not one of the richest clubs in France and have picked up a lot of injuries, and the domestic league in France has undoubtedly had an affect this season. The top 16 has changed from two groups of eight to one group of 16, and with that an increase from 20 matches to 30.
So for the first month of the season, we were playing twice a week, every Wednesday and Saturday. And that was in August, when the rest of Europe was still in pre-season. This has had a massive affect on teams, some more than others, and Bourgoin, although they are currently second in the French championship, don’t have the strength in depth of the other sides I’ve mentioned.
There are more injuries across the board. From our own game last week David Gerard is now out for a month with a back injury, and Benoit Baby has suffered another knee injury. Guys are going into games tired or with knocks.
For a club like Toulouse, who had nine internationals involved with three countries (France, Argentina and Wales) throughout November, coming back on the Tuesday before the Northampton game last Saturday, with a travel day thrown in, is not ideal. Just like Munster.
Castres, on the other hand, have the equivalent of about two full-time squads and, although they’ve a lot of past or recent internationals, have only about two current internationals playing with them, and have been playing or training together continuously since July.
I had met up with Mr Gaffney, Mr Geraghty and all of the Munster backroom staff last Wednesday night, and it seems Munster now have a coach for everything as well. A kicking coach, scrummaging coach, fitness coach, defensive coach, video man, etc.
There was one particular guy, their fitness coach Damien Mednis, I was introduced to who was called Chopper and who’d worked with the Queensland Reds for the last ten years. I remembered an Australian film called Chopper, about a notorious hard man in Australia, and I asked him how he got the nickname.
He told me that on the first day he arrived in Munster last year, all the players were doing stretching exercises. One of the younger players was stretching behind an open door with his hand in the joint where the hinges are. Chopper burst through the door and the screams out of this player could be heard in Dublin.
Chopper said “for f*** sake mate, will you stop whingeing!” The young fella’s bone was protruding through his finger. So Quinny and a few of the boys nicknamed him Chopper for almost chopping his finger off.
I had been out to Blagnac Airport last Thursday to collect Paula and the kids, and the airport was full of Munster supporters. I felt like a travel guide for half an hour giving out directions and advice. They’d come from all over Europe by trains, planes and automobiles.
I went down to the Castres game with Paula and some friends. The square in Castres was a sea of red and Castres put on a great show, with traditional Irish bands in the bars and tents before and after the game.
Personally I thought Munster looked tired. I know they’ll be fired up and better in Thomond Park after another week together but while Castres might make a few changes for that game the difference between them and Bourgoin is that any players brought in will be as good as those left out. That’s why I predicted Leinster would run up a big score against Bourgoin and I’ll be surprised if they don’t win comfortably again tomorrow night.
I was invited for dinner in Gareth Thomas’ house on Monday night, when he was up for the BBC Wales Sports Personality of the Year award. As it was a live link-up, there was a big satellite van in the driveway, and a crew of three cameramen and an interviewer in case he won it. It was quite an exciting night in that he was getting calls that he was in second place but ultimately he was beaten by Fanni Grey-Thomson, a double gold medal winner at the Paralympics.
They’d done a report on Alfie’s life and times in Toulouse which we watched on BBC Wales that night. He told of how the players had nicknamed him Chariot, how the lads explained this was like a Viking or a celtic warrior, and how proud he’d been of this. It was only when he went home and looked up his dictionary that he discovered its true translation was ‘a shopping trolley’.
Thankfully, I got the all-clear to play this weekend when we welcome Northampton to Toulouse. I’m really looking forward to it. We’ll see how interested we are in the Heineken Cup then.
(In an interview with Gerry Thornley, rugby correspondent of The Irish Times).