Guy Noves is not the type to talk in soundbites. As a 23-year-old winger, he turned his back on the French national team because he felt the management at the time were not honest enough with their players. As a result, when he says that Toulouse's Heineken Cup semi-final against Munster on Saturday will be the "hardest game of the season", you feel he is telling the truth.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Toulouse swept Munster aside, in a group match, 60-17. At the time, France's most famous club were the defending Hein- eken Cup champions. They boasted an international back-line, which included the likes of StÃ©phane Ougier, Emile Ntamack, Thomas CastaignÃ¿de and Christophe Deylaud, and renowned forwards such as Christophe Califano and Frank Belot. Toulouse were rampant.
The personnel has undergone inevitable changes since then, although the core of the team is intact. In the backs, Ougier and Ntamack remain, with two other internationals, Christophe Debrosse and the former Saracen Alain Penaud, having joined the ranks. The forwards have seen the arrival of Cedric Soulette and Frank Tournaire, as well as the emergence of the current French captain, Fabien Pelous.
"We have been keen to maintain as much continuity as possible," Noves explained. "The idea is to keep some of our top players at the club for as long as possible, while promoting younger guys through the ranks at the same time. That way, the experienced players share their knowledge, and the team stays fresh."
Toulouse have long prided themselves on their youth development system. Several of their current stars - Ntamack, Pelous, Belot - are products of the club. They are, in many ways, the Bath of France.
"I don't know," Noves said. "But it would be great if we were. Bath have a rich history and have produced some exceptional players for England."
Noves should be a politician. He may play down his team's chances but, since he rejoined the club as coach in 1993 (he had previously managed Toulouse for two seasons, 1988 and 1989, before leaving after an argument with the then chairman) Toulouse have won five French championships, two French cups and the inaugural European Cup in 1996.
"We have done OK," he acknowledged. "But there is still plenty to do. The main thing which I have tried to achieve is to instil confidence in the players. Because, once you have confidence, you can teach players to do anything."
Noves' major achievement has been to get his teams to play a near-perfect brand of total rugby. When they are on song, Toulouse are irresistible.
"Our trademark, is our system of play," he said. "We spend a lot of time in training going over the different possibilities and practising various moves. That way, the players have a range of options to chose from during a match. They are like artists with a palette: depending on how things are developing, they can just dip in and out of the knowledge they have accrued."
At times this season, Toulouse have shown glimpses of what they are capable of. Against Bath at the Rec last November, Noves' men ran from every position on the field and, with a little luck, would have defeated the West Country club by 20 points. As it happens, they won by seven, thus inflicting Bath's first home defeat in Europe since 1998.
Like all French teams, though, Toulouse and their stars can have off-days. "The one that sticks most vividly in my mind is the 77-17 defeat by Wasps in 1996," Noves recalled. "We were the European champions, and we were totally outplayed."
It was after that stinging blow that Noves realised the work he still had to do, both on and off the pitch. "I remember being amazed to see an English team play that way," he said. "They were passing and running the way we always hoped to. And then, in terms of structure, the club were brilliantly run." Noves returned full of ideas. Within a year, Toul-ouse had opened a brasserie at Les Sept-Deniers, the club's ground, and created a corporate hospitality system. "There is little doubt that, in recent years, we have followed the example of certain English clubs in the way we've structured ourselves," Noves added.
Noves does not envisage a high-scoring match on Saturday. European semi-finals are usually tense affairs, and this one promises to be very similar. "It is going to be the most difficult game of our whole season," he said. "I honestly believe that. There's no way we'll win 60-17 again. Irish rugby is totally different from four years ago. They have created strong provinces and brought some of their star players back, and they are now producing the results. The days of saying that Irish players are just keen, committed and spirited are well and truly gone.
"Just look at the last few matches between French and Irish teams. France only just beat Ireland 10-9 away in last season's Five Nations, and then were beaten by them at home, for the first time in some 20 years, in the Six Nations a couple of months ago. The gap is closing."
It is Munster's impressive victory over Stade FranÃ§ais in the quarter-finals of the Hein- eken Cup which most concerns Noves. That match, more than any other in recent times, illustrated how close both nations were. "Munster are not just a very physical side, they are also very clever," he said. "They play intelligent rugby, while retaining their trademark determination. Guys like John Langford and Ronan O'Gara have made them incredibly hard to beat."
Noves is a master of gamesmanship and Munster, though flattered, will not be fooled by his praise. Neither will they be unduly worried about having to play in Bordeaux. Toulouse won the first Cup in Cardiff and Bath won it in Brive. "I just hope French soil brings us more luck," Noves joked.Reuse content