Sport

French rugby league holds its breath as Toulouse fight to avoid relegation

The bottom of the Super League table makes miserable reading for those of us who hoped Toulouse Olympique would survive or even thrive this season. But it is to 2024 that we should look: that is when Toulouse need to be jostling for a seat at the top table, ready to take up their place when any new format for the competition is confirmed.

With only two wins from their first 15 games in Super League, you could assume Toulouse are already down. Not so, although their destiny will likely be decided in July. Even if they lose at Wigan on Friday night, they will only be six points adrift going into their next game at home to Hull KR. Then come successive meetings with three of the four teams immediately above them: Wakefield at the Magic weekend, and Leeds and Salford at home.

Toulouse could win three of those and be revved up for the trips to Hull KR and Warrington that follow. The club hopes the local public gets behind them in their month of need – fans can buy tickets to all four of home games in July for just €25 – knowing they need wins now given that they face title-chasing Wigan, Catalans and St Helens, in their final four games of the campaign.

Coach Sylain Houles is making all the right noises: yes, it has been difficult but, no, we have not given up. Even if they finish bottom, the perceptive Houles will have completed an astonishing feat: his Toulouse teams will have finished higher up the RFL ladder in each of his nine seasons in charge. Few coaches in world sport can say that. Toulouse will surely be fielding enquiries for the 40-year-old if they are relegated.

Toulouse head coach Sylvain Houles.
Toulouse head coach Sylvain Houles. Photograph: Shutterstock

Their season could so easily have been different. Had Toulouse won rather than lost by last-gasp drop goals against Wigan and Huddersfield, or beaten one of their relegation rivals rather than St Helens by a couple of points, they would be only one win adrift, not three.

Clearly they have not won enough games, but they are not being hammered every week. Their points difference is only -11.9 per game, and eight of their 13 defeats have been by 12 points or fewer. If they were to score one try more and concede one fewer, their season would be transformed.

Another problem is that they have peaked against the competition’s leading teams, rather than their fellow strugglers. They pushed Wigan, Catalans and Huddersfield all the way but none of their five narrowest defeats have been against the four teams still (just) within their reach. Pushing the best sides while being beaten comfortably by those around you is unhelpful to survival hopes.

Holidaying in western France last week seemed a natural time to read Stormy Sixties, Roger Grime’s book about the French national rugby league team in a decade in which France played 50 internationals. They won half of their 20 Tests against Great Britain, beat Australia three times, and their domestic game had sufficient appeal to have top-flight clubs in St-Étienne, Roanne and Mulhouse on the German border.

But seeing the media coverage of French union’s Top 14 play-offs was bewildering for a British league fan: Perpignan fans invading the pitch waving Catalan flags after they stayed up; 18,000 at Stade Ernest Wallon a few hours after 5,000 saw Castleford beat TO there; 27,000 inside Bordeaux’s historic Stade du Parc Lescure, the scene of so many magical rugby league matches, including France beating Australia in 1963; clubs from rugby league lands Tarn and Provence on primetime TV and the front page of sports daily L’Équipe while the Dragons’ latest win was given just two sentences, Toulouse’s defeat just the one and a photo of Matty Russell. It was hard not to feel envious.

At least Toulouse Olympique’s presence has meant another dozen French players are acquiring Super League experience. That alone is not going to help enormously when France face England and Samoa in the World Cup, but their federation is targeting a successful 2025 on home soil and, having lost their last six World Cup matches, the people in charge realise that beating Greece in October would be a start to their recovery. How France fare in the next couple of years will have a considerable impact on where the IRL ranks them before the World Cup in 2025, which they qualify for automatically as hosts.

Beating Wales 34-10 on Sunday was a start. While there were a dozen Dragons in the France side, only two Toulouse players started, with two more on the bench. Having a national team featuring players from just two clubs brings issues: just look at Italy and Scotland in rugby union. In Stormy Sixties, Grime writes: “Too much was being asked of too few elite players.” That rings true now as much as it did then. At least with Toulouse in Super League, the pool of full-time talent is widening, albeit perhaps only until September.

However, it is still rare for a domestic player to be chosen by the Dragons or Olympique over any of their overseas imports, especially in creative positions. With the Dragons spending big on England captain Sam Tomkins at full-back and the highly effective Australian half-back pairing of Josh Drinkwater and Mitchell Pearce (and before him James Maloney), the sublimely talented Arthur Mourgue must fill in wherever he can. For a while this spring, such were Toulouse’s injury problems, Houles appeared to be choosing his half-back pairing by picking names from a hat. Now he has settled on Lucas Albert alongside NRL veteran Corey Norman, with Tony Gigot out of favour.

Toulouse Olympique’s Lucas Albert makes a break against Huddersfield in February.
Toulouse Olympique’s Lucas Albert makes a break against Huddersfield in February. Photograph: Alex Whitehead/SWpix/Shutterstock

Despite Huddersfield’s Theo Fages being injured, France coach Laurent Frayssinous and director Trent Robinson picked teenager Cesar Rouge, rather than Albert, on Sunday to partner his 23-year-old club-mate Mourgue. With so few opportunities at the Dragons, Rouge’s next game will be on loan for Whitehaven on Sunday. Frayssinous and Robinson are clearly looking to the future by ignoring a trio of 31-year-old internationals (Gigot, Stan Robin and Dane Chisholm). When Mourgue aggravated an ankle injury on Sunday, full-back Morgan Escare stepped into the halves.

Salford custodian Escare was the only English-based player in the France team, a role taken by Jerome Guissett on another roasting June day in Albi 22 years ago, when Houles and Frayssinous contributed to the 56 points France put on an Ireland side captained by a hot and bothered Barrie McDermott. The rest of that France team came from eight French clubs, as it did when France beat Wales in 1963 and 1969.

Having Toulouse in Super League is not an elixir to all of French rugby league’s problems. The French sporting public would do well to have noticed, given that so far only two Olympique games have been shown on live TV. But their presence gives the code a massive opportunity.

If they do go down this autumn, Toulouse need to hold their nerve. The likelihood is they will be replaced by Leigh, meaning Toulouse would probably face competition primarily from Featherstone for promotion in 2023. By then the format of the elite competition may be about to change.

Super League needs a second French club if new partners IMG are to have any hope of monetising the success of Catalans to benefit the whole game. Houles has said that repeatedly. But whether the completion expands or not, Toulouse know their best chance of a return would be an instant one.

World Cup watch

Fielding six debutants, Wales could be satisfied with their display in steaming Albi last Sunday. Without Regan Grace and Gil Dudson, John Kear’s only Super League regular was Salford full-back Rhys Williams, whose record-breaking 31st appearance is even more impressive given Wales had not played an international for 31 months.

By the end of this weekend, just Australia, Greece, Ireland and Italy of the 16 men’s teams at the World Cup this year will still not have played since November 2019. Italy, however, have confirmed a stellar new management team for the World Cup: head coach Leo Epifania – the one-time York boss – will be joined by World Cup-winning coach Tim Sheens as technical director, former Hull FC lock Tony Grimaldi on strength and conditioning, former dual international Terry Campese as assistant coach, and Tas Baitieri as team manager.

One more thing

Tucked away in the yellow pages of famed French rugby’s bi-weekly bible Midi-Olympique was a report on Pia Donkeys’ golden point win over Baho in the Elite 2 final, watched by nearly 3,000 at the Brute. Pia must now confirm they are ready to become the 10th team in Elite 1, after the competition ran with only nine sides last season following the demise of Palau Broncos. While some may scoff at yet another Catalan village club entering the top flight, Pia are four-times national champions, the last time just a decade ago, soon after which years of unfeasibly signing notable overseas imports finally caught up with them and they went belly up. Their return should be welcomed.

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