Toulouse - true champions who were born to run and run

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The Independent Online

The good folk of Leeds may beg to differ - and the size of the gathering at Headingley for this afternoon's visit of Toulouse will soon tell - but Phil Davies is unequivocal. "This is a highly prestigious day, to have the champions of Europe here," the Tykes' director of rugby said. "Although the stadium is over 100 years old, I'm sure that this is a truly historic occasion."

Leeds and Toulouse are poles apart on planet rugby, as Davies readily acknow-ledges. "Even the fact that we are playing them is a fantastic achievement when you consider how far we have come. Six years ago to the day we were playing Reading in National Division Three." Stade Toulousain, by stark contrast, won the first of their 16 French Championship titles in 1912. They took the inaugural Heineken Cup in 1996, and won it again in Dublin last May.

The production line of talent is oiled by an outstanding academy, originally founded in 1998 to help find jobs for the players, and the club can also cherry-pick from 450 youngsters in 13 junior teams run by the amateur branch. The 20,000-capacity Ernest Wallon stadium, unusually in France, is owned not by the municipality but privately by the "Friends of Stade Toulousain", and features a swanky brasserie, 36 hospitality boxes and a new office block. In the centre of town, fans can gorge themselves on merchandise or have a business breakfast at the three-storey club shop.

The Zeus sitting at the peak of this Olympian structure is Guy Noves, arguably the world's most successful rugby coach. Whereas most French clubs adopt the Italian football approach to hiring and firing - lasting two seasons is a success, three almost a miracle - Noves has been calling the shots at Toulouse since 1992. He played for the club from 1975 to 1988, winning seven caps on the wing for France, and graduated to coaching first the juniors then the first team before he left for two years in 1990. On his return, Noves kick-started a fantastically successful reign including six French Championship titles and, when not reaching the final, three more European semi-finals, in 1997, 1998 and 2000.

"Results are what count in the end, and they have helped my longevity," Noves said during a break from preparations for the trip to Yorkshire. "For the last 20 years, the club has been ahead of its time, for example before the Heineken Cup we staged the Masters, inviting foreign clubs to play. The ground has been transformed by 'Les amis du Stade', and I have been able to create the ideal conditions for a professional sporting environment, with specialist coaching for forwards and backs, and the right medical support."

Noves will turn 50 next month. Half a lifetime ago, in February 1979, he and Jean-Pierre Rives were Toulouse's only representatives when France denied Wales a Grand Slam with a 14-13 win in Paris. These days, the national squad are littered with offshoots of "la ville rose". If Nicolas Jeanjean temporarily blows a fuse, as he did at Neath last weekend, Noves simply beckons to the bench for another international full-back in Clément Poitrenaud. When the Ospreys lost 29-6 in a deluge at Stade Ernest Wallon a fortnight ago, Cédric Heymans did the damage on the wing. For the return at the Gnoll, Heymans was a substitute, and Vincent Clerc scored a first-half hat-trick.

The youngsters have strong leaders: Fabien Pelous, France's captain-elect, is injured but resumed light running last Tuesday and should return early in the Six Nations. Emile Ntamack, though no longer a Test player, glides on like an ocean liner. To stoke the engines, Noves prised the loosehead prop Patrice Collazo away from Gloucester in 2002.

Thomas Castaignède, now at Saracens but a member of Toulouse's 1996 Heineken Cup winning side, is appreciative of the Noves effect. "When he took over, the club had £7m of debt at the bank, but he persuaded players to stay and managed to bring in new ones. Guy speaks quietly in training but he knows how to motivate you, to work on your head when you need it. One day he will be the France coach - he deserves it."

The incumbent, Bernard Laporte, recently suggested that Frédéric Michalak should have a run for Toulouse at fly-half. Noves picked the 21-year-old at scrum-half. Castaignède's eye has been caught by the latest starlet in the centre, Benôit Baby. "Most of the guys come through the academy," said Castaignède. "I remember seeing Poitrenaud and Michalak there when they were 12. Noves creates a type of game, and the players who understand it go into the first team."

Leeds, like Sale last season, have found their first crack at the Heineken tough going. Toulouse know that defeat today could leave them adrift of Edinburgh in Pool Two, and playing for one of the best runners-up spots. "If I feel we can win," said Noves, "we'll go for it."