Peter Bills: Toulon prove money can't buy success

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As Manchester City Football Club have discovered at various times this season, spending money is not the sole panacea for complete success.

In the world of rugby, that painful reality was spelled out graphically this week to Mourad Boudjellal, the owner of French Top 14 club RC Toulon.

The club which has become known as the moneybags club of France, or at least was until Racing Metro in Paris began to spend big, has failed to land one of the automatic semi-final places in the knock-out competition that climaxes the season in France.

Worse still, Toulon won’t even be in this weekend’s ‘barrages’, the eliminators for the clubs that finished third, fourth, fifth and sixth to earn one of the two remaining semi-final places.

Toulon’s season is over and the inquests are beginning. They promise to be long and painful.

How could a club that spent so much money recruiting so many top players not even finish in the top six in the French League? How on earth could overseas stars like Jonny Wilkinson, Joe van Niekerk, Dean Schofield, Carl Hayman, George Smith, Paul Sackey, Felipe Contepomi, Juan Fernandez Lobbe, Matt Henjak, Rory Lamont, Rudi Wulf, Gavin Henson and any number of Georgians and Pacific Island players fail to earn qualification for the club of the Mediterranean?

You can bet that Boudjellal, nobody’s fool as his immense wealth from a highly successful business career proves, will want to know the answers. He has already announced that England wing Sackey is the first to be released, the Englishman having failed to measure up to the club’s expectations. And there will almost certainly be changes in the coaching structure.

"Saint-Andre will stay in his role, but he will have different people at his disposition," said 50-year-old Boudjellal. "It is my belief that we need to strengthen our coaching staff.

"Maybe there are certain people who should have new tasks, more suited to their limitations" he added, caustically.

Another clear hint of changes ahead came from Toulon coach Philippe Saint-Andre in the wake of his side’s 27-3 humiliation at Montpellier last weekend. It had been a straight shoot-out – whoever won would clinch sixth place and qualification. Yet Toulon were swept aside by a club with only a few star names, the likes of French outside half Francois Trinh-Duc.

How could it happen? Saint-Andre delivered a withering verdict, saying that the spirit and commitment of the team this year was inferior to that of last year’s side. He also pointed to the fact that Toulon lost their first two home matches last autumn, an expensive stumble right at the start.

Yet much of Toulon’s troubles have been their own fault. They have promoted the philosophy of buying in established overseas stars at the expense of local French talent. It would be absurd to say that there are no Frenchmen at Toulon but the vast majority of the squad has been recruited from overseas.

Do you find so strong a bond, such cohesion as quickly or as effectively in such circumstances? If you study the case of both Toulon and Manchester City, you find clear fault lines with this strategy.

Unlike Manchester, Toulon has another problem that can affect players from other countries. Its geographical location means that for most of the year it offers an enticing, seductive climate. The sun shines, it can be warm late into the year and even from as early as February onwards. Might not some players with long term contracts worth many hundreds of thousands of euros believe they have stumbled upon the elixir of life? Might they not, mentally at least, drop a notch or two in terms of commitment?

Might not Toulon believe Paul Sackey fits such a category? That could be one answer as to why they have released him.

But another problem is that Toulon have made some strange buys. Jonny Wilkinson and Joe van Niekerk have both been outstanding, full of professionalism and commitment and superb examples to others. But Gavin Henson and Paul Sackey? Odd choices, you have to say.

New Zealand prop Carl Hayman was a hugely expensive recruit, earning a reported 625,000 euros a season. But he has played comparatively few games and he hasn’t always been injured. Forking out that sort of money and then asking the guy to sit on the substitute’s bench sounds distinctly strange to me.

I still wonder whether Hayman will see out his contract with the club. Might he even be off-loaded this summer and allowed to head back to New Zealand? Stranger things have happened.

Owners like Mourad Boudjellal who plough millions of their own money into a sports team expect instant results. That is the nature of the men. But Toulon have gone backwards this season and you can bet several heads are going to roll because of that fact.