Retiring Ntamack seeks redress for 'nightmare' humiliation by Wasps

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A Year ago, when Toulouse won the final of the 2003 Heineken Cup, Emile Ntamack announced his retirement from rugby. There was, after all, a certain symmetry to it all, bowing out seven years after leading his team to victory in the first-ever European Cup in 1996. But another season has come and nearly gone, the Toulouse captain is still there and, despite being scarcely a month away from his 34th birthday, he is still one of the most influential players in European club rugby.

A Year ago, when Toulouse won the final of the 2003 Heineken Cup, Emile Ntamack announced his retirement from rugby. There was, after all, a certain symmetry to it all, bowing out seven years after leading his team to victory in the first-ever European Cup in 1996. But another season has come and nearly gone, the Toulouse captain is still there and, despite being scarcely a month away from his 34th birthday, he is still one of the most influential players in European club rugby.

"Last year, when we beat Perpignan in the Heineken final in Dublin, I said that it was time to go," Ntamack says. "I felt that my career had come full circle and that there was nothing more that I could ask for, after winning a second European Cup. But I'm still here, still getting just as much pleasure out of playing for my club, and still getting a buzz from playing in another final."

After 16 seasons with Toulouse, Ntamack is indeed no stranger to the one-off pressure of a cup final and, in a long and illustrious career, which saw him win 46 caps for France between 1994 and 2000, he has had more than his fair share of success. As well as the two European Cup winner's medals from 1996 and 2003 already safely in the trophy cabinet, he has won the final of the French championship on six occasions (1994, '95, '96, '97, '99 and 2001) and the final of the French Cup (formerly known as the Yves du Manoir challenge) twice, in 1993 and 1995. In fact, the only finals he has ever lost are the World Cup final against Australia in 1999 and the French club final last year against Stade Français.

Two defeats, out of a total of 12 finals played is not bad going. "No, that's still two too many!" quips Ntamack, ever the perfectionist. "As a sportsman, no matter what you might achieve over the years, it still hurts when you lose a final. But I know I have been lucky over the years; there are many great players who have played for longer than I have, who have never made it to a single final, and who have never had the pleasure of experiencing the unique taste that comes with it."

Currently with 21 tries to his credit, making him the second-top try-scorer in the history of the European Cup, behind former team-mate Michel Marfaing, Ntamack will lead his team from centre tomorrow. But for the multi-talented three-quarter, who is equally at ease as a full-back, wing or centre, this year's final will have even greater significance than usual. Not just because this may well be his last appearance in a European Cup fixture before he officially retires. But more especially because, of the 22 players on the team-sheet today, he is the sole survivor of the Toulouse team which was humiliated by Wasps in a pool game in 1996, the date (27 October 1996) and the score (77-17) of which have been burned into the collective memory of the French club.

"It was a nightmare," Ntamack recalls. "We had gone to London as the reigning champions of France and of Europe, and Wasps gave us a total lesson in rugby. It was a display of pace, of power, of strength and at the time we said to ourselves: ' C'est pas possible! Nous ne jouons pas le même rugby!' [It's not possible! We don't play the same kind of rugby!]." Seven years on, the battering the Wasps gave them is now seen as a turning point in the history of Toulouse, an epiphany on the road to Twickenham.

"For myself and for the club, that game remains a reference point and their influence is still there. That day in London we realised that Wasps knew what modern rugby was all about. It was all about speed, about doing everything at pace, at being the first to arrive at the breakdown, about being first everywhere," Ntamack said.

Taking this turning point to its logical extension, Ntamack half-jokingly claims that if Toulouse beat Wasps in tomorrow's final, Wasps will have only themselves to blame. "It's true," he insists. "If Wasps had not given us such a thrashing in 1996, we would not have progressed in the way we did, our game would not have evolved in the same way." To be fair, it was not as if Toulouse were incapable of playing the sort of high-speed game favoured by the Wasps, because a week after the thrashing at Loftus Road they beat Munster 60-19 in Toulouse, and went on to win yet another French championship in style.

But, as Ntamack insists, Wasps produced the spark which forced Toulouse to evolve. "It was a reminder that whatever the competition you are in, there is never an easy game, and whoever you are playing against, you have to do it at 100 miles per hour. It was a wake-up call in terms of our physical preparation, our application and commitment on the field, and simply of what it meant to be a professional rugby team."

Not surprisingly, ever since qualifying for tomorrow's final, Ntamack and his coach, Guy Novès, have consistently talked up their London-based opponents, highlighting the quality of their recent performances, both in the Premiership and the Heineken Cup. And although no strangers to winning European Cup finals away from home (they beat Cardiff at the Arms Park in 1996 and Perpignan at Lansdowne Road in 2003), the Toulouse camp is happy to assume the mantle of underdog for tomorrow's final.

"Wasps are clear favourites to take the title," Ntamack said. "They are a superb side, obviously in great form at the moment, and they will be playing at home in front of 75,000 Englishmen, so the context clearly favours them."

As the senior member of the most successful club in the history of European rugby, Ntamack will not, however, be relinquishing the Heineken Cup without a fight. "Wasps are definitely a bogey team for us, and we know we will be up against it on their home turf. But we will not be going to Twickenham as lambs to the slaughter. Because if Toulouse have been able to survive over the years, it's because we are able to adapt to whatever challenge the opposition may throw at us," he said. "We intend to enjoy ourselves, give it our best shot and just enjoy the frisson of playing another final."

Spoken like a true survivor.

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