They’ve been likened to the Galacticos era at Spanish football giants Real Madrid. Then again, they’ve also been chastised for ruining the game, buying titles by bringing in an army of mercenaries.
Whatever your view regarding Toulon’s impact on rugby, you can’t deny it’s been exciting under the headline-grabbing guidance of Mourad Boudjellal. Jonny Wilkinson, Bryan Habana and Sonny Bill Williams have all donned the red jersey and helped draw the crowds to the blue collar naval town on France’s south east coast.
The club’s Stade Mayol ground is surrounded by high-rise tenement flats. It’s not exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find some of the northern and southern hemisphere’s premier players from the last decade plying their trade.
Club president Boudjellal is even more colourful than the comic books his former firm Soleil Productions is famed for publishing. The son of Algerian immigrants, Boudjellal initially invested in his hometown club along with Stephane Lelievre in 2006, plotting a bold mission to assemble a hoard of superheroes Marvel would be proud to call their own. He’s certainly achieved that.
The likes of Ma’a Nonu, Tana Umaga, James O’Connor, Quade Cooper, Duane Vermeulen, Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Leigh Halfpenny are just some of the names to have arrived since – helping Toulon to claim three straight European Cup crowns from 2013-15 – yet some critics would have Boudjellal painted as the arch villain rather than a caped crusader.
Two of his former recruits, however, can’t speak highly enough of the Professor Xavier-type leader who made it his mission to put together an all-star cast.
Boudjellal helped line the pockets of Carl Hayman and Tom May, but undoubtedly also helped enrich the tapestry of French and northern hemisphere rugby. New Zealander Hayman and Englishman May were two of the early imports to the military port town as Boudjellal built his brigade. Hayman joined from Newcastle Falcons in the summer of 2010 with 45 All Blacks caps to his name, arriving with the club established in, if not yet dominating, the Top 14 after promotion from the second-tier Pro D2 two seasons earlier.
“It was touted as a big spending club but we hadn’t really done anything,” said Hayman, 37, of the early days prior to the money yielding silverware. “The first season I was there we finished seventh in the Top 14 and didn’t make the Heineken Cup. (Then coach) Philippe Saint-Andre made a lot of recruitments for the following season but then left for the French national team and Bernard Laporte came in.
“It was really from that moment it started to take off. We had Jonny (Wilkinson) and Matt Giteau. Up front we had myself, Andrew Sheridan and Bakkies Botha so we had a nucleus of a really good squad. We had a minimum of changes for the next few years and the guys who came in really added value to what we were doing and depth in positions where we didn’t have it.
“A massive amount of players have gone through the club since 2006 to when I got there in 2010, like George Gregan. A lot of guys helped along the way to get the club to where it is. But to get it up and running, it was Mourad in the beginning.”
Boudjellal’s time at Toulon’s helm has not been without controversy. There was the 130-day dressing room and pitchside ban he received from Top 14 chiefs for a lurid outburst against officials following a narrow defeat to Clermont in January 2012. There were protestations that French rugby is racist and offering to sell the club last year. But Hayman recalls a shrewd operator. A man with an eye for opportunity. Who opened up French rugby to new markets, especially the more illustrious nations down under.
“I don’t think anyone in New Zealand knew where Toulon was or anything about it,” added Hayman. “Then Tana signed (in 2006) and the whole of New Zealand knew about it. Mourad was very smart with the guys he signed back then, like George (Gregan) too. He would have had the same effect in Australia.
“He was very smart the way he went about it. He got the Japanese full-back (Christian Loamanu). After signing him the search engines in Japan got busy and everyone wanted to know where Toulon was, so he’s done very well.”
May joined in 2009 while holidaying on a beach in Barbados. Also at Newcastle at the time, the twice-capped England back described the whole process as surreal, but was soon swapping the North Sea for the Mediterranean.
“From the first day he wanted to make Toulon a massive mark on the rugby map and he has succeeded,” said May, 38. “The club is now a huge name in world rugby, let alone French or European rugby, and a large part of that can be put down to the drive and motivation of Mourad. Some might not be overly keen on him due to his persistent hunt of the limelight but you can’t say that he has done anything but do what he deems best for the club even though that might, at times, seem like complete lunacy from the outside.”
The sheen of success has worn off somewhat in recent years. Toulon haven’t won the Top 14 title in three seasons, beaten in the last two finals by Racing 92 and Clermont Auvergne. The money men have also fallen short in the renamed Rugby Champions Cup, beaten in the 2016 quarter-finals by domestic rivals Racing and Clermont at the same stage last season.
But they still possess a wealth of stars, with Habana, Lobbe and Smith still in place and joined next season by ex-England winger Chris Ashton and, in the last week, explosive All Blacks centre Malakai Fekitoa. Think what you will about the intentions of players who would rather seek fame and fortune abroad and turn their back on the famous black jersey, but neither Hayman nor May feel mercenary is a fair term to describe the various Toulon talents.
“The foreign guys that he got in were really good pros,” said Hayman, who claims the big names instilled professional standards at the club. “The Aussie guys like Matt and Drew (Mitchell) in particular are just really good pros, Bakkies too, and Jonny, really experienced campaigners and great ambassadors.
“Having Jonny there, with his work ethic and the way he went about things, he really dragged a lot of guys with him on the field. A lot of guys who perhaps wouldn’t normally be doing half an hour extra after practice or working on their skills, Jonny would be out there doing it and guys would gravitate to him and would start doing that stuff too.”
May concurs, claiming that players, whether earning big bucks or not, are still driven by dreams of glory.
“It’s easy to say the lads that go to Toulon go for the money but you could say that for anyone who goes anywhere in France to play,” the ex-Northampton Saints and London Welsh man said.
“The money is better out there. This will of course attract players as it is only a short career. That said, I don’t think many rugby players turn up and train just because they are happy to pick up a hefty pay cheque at the end of the month. The vast majority of them have an internal drive and motivation which means that they want to win and be the best.”