It seems just a little ironic, given the sheer volume of conquests over the last 90-odd years, that the Toulouse club is still known in French rugby circles as la vierge rouge – the red virgin.
The bright spark who coined the nickname, way back in 1912, was not entirely wrong-headed: in a season untainted by defeat, the players had certainly succeeded in defending their honour. But now, after 17 domestic championships and three European titles, the use of the v-word is quaint indeed. True virgins do not have a single notch on the stick, let alone 20.
The tally may well rise this evening. Toulouse play Biarritz in the Heineken Cup final, a match that will draw a capacity crowd of 80,000-plus to Stade de France, the wonderful stadium in Saint-Denis on the northern outskirts of Paris, and they are strong favourites to lift the trophy for the fourth time. (No other club has managed it more than twice.) Biarritz are nobody's fools, as they reminded us in knocking out the hardened European campaigners from Munster a little under three weeks ago, but even the most bristlingly aggressive of their Basque contingent, the fine No 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, acknowledges the scale of the challenge presented by these particular opponents.
"I am like most children, I always want what I don't have," he says. "It's so hard to reach a Heineken Cup final, so winning it would be so dear to me. And yes, I believe we can win. But Toulouse are the No 1 team in France, and probably Europe as well, in terms of squad, of structure and of results. They are a model of consistency, and when you see how fast they react on the counter-attack, they can be compared with the All Blacks."
As it is rarely a good idea to argue with a man tough enough to deliver a match-winning performance against Munster while suffering from a badly broken nose and a mashed-up ribcage, it comes as some relief to report that, statistically speaking, Harinordoquy is absolutely right in lauding Toulouse as the best of the best in the northern hemisphere. If anything, he is underegging it. Of the five highest-achieving rugby cities on earth – Auckland, Christchurch, Pretoria and dear old Leicester are the others – the capital of the Languedoc can fairly claim to be first amongst equals.
Unlike Leicester and the Christchurch-based Canterbury side, they were every bit as successful in the amateur era as they have been in the professional one. Auckland (16 domestic titles across the piece) and the Blue Bulls of Pretoria (19 times the outright Currie Cup champions of South Africa) are right there in the shake-up, but the Toulouse achievement in Europe settles the issue by the shortest of short heads. Auckland and Pretoria are no strangers to cross-border success, having scooped five southern hemisphere "super whatever" trophies between them, but in those competitions they draw players from neighbouring provincial unions. Toulouse keep it in-house, and therein lays the source of their strength.
"I don't think it's easy to put a finger on exactly what it is that makes them what they are," says Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham, "but it seems to me that they draw on a culture, a value system, that seems to have been there for ever. When you play for them, you commit to playing rugby their way, to subscribing to their philosophy – a philosophy that is uniquely theirs. We're 15 years into professional rugby now, so it's strange to think that such a great club would rather lose a big match playing in the Toulouse way than win it playing rugby that might be considered anti-Toulouse. But it's the way they are, and it goes beyond the field of play. Managerially, commercially, structurally – everything is geared towards producing rugby of a very particular style."
Andrew knows as much as most mere Anglo-Saxons about the mysteries of the "Toulouse way". It is almost 20 years since he startled the Rugby Football Union establishment by joining the French club for a season – he had, after all, been England's first-choice No 10 throughout the 1991 World Cup and was operating at somewhere near the peak of his powers – but he still treasures the experience. It was, he says without a hint of exaggeration, transformative.
"Pierre Villepreux was their coach at the time, and during the late 1980s he made occasional visits to England to run one-off sessions with the national team," he recalls. "The idea of me playing over there developed over time and after the World Cup, the moment seemed right. When I joined, Pierre was in the process of leaving for Treviso and Jean-Claude Skrela took over. Guy Noves, who coaches them now, was just finishing as a player. That continuity is at the heart of what they do.
"How would I describe my time there? It was fantastic, absolutely brilliant. Even then, long before the idea of academies took off here, there were kids all over the place, learning how to play rugby in the Toulouse way. There was this central idea of developing talent from a young age, rather than shipping it in from elsewhere. It was the philosophy of the boot room, if you like. Of course, it helps when rugby is by far the biggest sport in a city of more than a million people.
"Rugby runs in the bloodstream of the people there. It's in their soul. I remember watching them play a championship semi-final against Racing Club in Bordeaux. On the day of the game, Toulouse emptied. There was this constant stream of traffic heading out of town on the way to the match. It was different to anything I'd ever seen and I found myself completely caught up in it."
During Andrew's time there, Toulouse were not especially star-spangled. Eric Bonneval, who might well have developed into a wing for all the ages had injuries not cut him short, was part of the team, and there was a handful of youngsters – the full-back Stéphane Ougier, the wing David Berty, the scrum-half Jérôme Cazalbou – who would play in, and win, the first Heineken Cup final in 1996. But that's the thing about Toulouse. They stick to their fundamentals, whatever the strength of their squad.
So what are the fundamentals of the Toulouse way? "It's all about movement," Andrew explains. "It's about players staying on their feet, running from deep, supporting the ball-carrier at angles that give him a range of options. When they get all the components right, it's virtually impossible for the opposition to do anything about it. By the time they think they've stopped an attack, it's moved somewhere else. I know what it's like to coach against them, as well as play for them. You think the game is here, but in fact it's over there."
They will never be anything other than trail-blazers. If they were the first of the French clubs to develop a deep-rooted hunger for European success – Noves, their coach, memorably said it was the only way to make the rest of France think of them with love, rather than with envy – it was merely the latest example of the club's pioneering spirit. As Richard Escot, among the finest chroniclers of the game on the far side of the water, once put it: "Toulouse was built around a new idea of how rugby could be played – around the idea that a prop could act like a centre."
Like many of the best ideas, it is counter-intuitive. A little like the thought of the red virgin with all those notches on her stick.Reuse content