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.”
Last Thursday, the UAE cricket team continued their recent revival by celebrating an impressive 50-over series triumph against the Netherlands.
It came exactly a year since central contracts were introduced and the feat proved that the national side is now reaping the rewards after turning professional.
It was 12 months ago on July 20 that a new chapter was marked in UAE cricket as the Emirates Cricket Board (ECB) announced their first-ever deals for their players.
Spinner Imran Haider, pacer Qadeer Ahmed, all-rounder Rohan Mustafa and batsmen Mohammed Qasim, Mohammed Usman, Rameez Shahzad and Ghulam Shabbir became the first UAE cricketers to be given two-year, full-time deals.
All-rounder Amjad Javed, spinner Ahmed Raza, pacer Mohammed Naveed and veteran batsman Shaiman Anwar, who are in the UAE on work visas, are on the ECB’s books only as part-time professionals.
It was something that former coach Aaqib Javed had bemoaned since his troops, made up of amateur cricketers at the time, qualified for the 2015 World Cup for just the second time in their history, in February 2014.
It was the second ICC tournament the UAE had reached, having qualified for the 2014 World Twenty20.
The former Pakistan bowler worked wonders with his bunch of players who after completing their full-time jobs in the day would then put in the extra hours on the field on most evenings at the ICC Academy.
ECB soon took action by working on a central contracts plan.
— UAE Cricket Official (@EmiratesCricket) July 21, 2017
Planning for the new system went on for more than a year and during that period especially after their group stage exit at the 2015 World Cup, the team struggled.
They missed out on qualification for the 2016 World T20 and suffered ODI and four-day ICC Intercontinental Cup defeats to Hong Kong.
Yet, the potential was still there, as was shown in the Asia Cup 2016 where the UAE beat Afghanistan, Oman and Hong Kong in the qualifiers to secure the lone berth in the main tournament. They were lauded for their efforts despite defeats to India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
By the time the contracts were finally announced at the ICC Academy (ICCA), Javed was no longer at the helm having ended his four-year stay last May.
However, it was still the start of a new era and although the team enjoyed success as amateur cricketers, the new side could aim for sustained progress with the help of a ‘professional’ set-up.
“This is just the start. I’m sure this will help UAE cricket going forward,” said Waleed Bukhatir, chief selector and member of the ECB board during the press conference last July.
“We hope with this programme players will develop and take them to further heights.”
It means the team is now training five days a week for up to six hours a day, including skill development and fitness sessions at the ICCA in Dubai.
The transition from amateur to professionals was not a straightforward task with the players working with interim coaches – former England internationals Paul Franks and Owais Shah – as the ECB began their search for Javed’s successor.
Franks was winless in his three matches in charge during the Scotland tour in August 2016.
Then under Shah, the team won five games but suffered a group stage exit in the Desert T20, as well as series defeats to Afghanistan and England Lions.
Today, they are showing signs of their top form that once made them one of the best Associate sides in the world under Javed.
Former Warwickshire supremo Dougie Brown has come on board, previously as interim and now head coach. He has made an instant impact, winning 10 out of 13 games – including series wins against Papua New Guinea, Oman and the Netherlands.
It may have taken time to get positive results but Zayed Abbas, official spokesperson for the ECB and board member, insists things are moving in the right direction.
“It’s now paying back and things are changing,” he said. “If you see our results in the last year, our team has been doing much better. Of course we cannot expect overnight success but we are going in the right direction.”
He added: “The way we are working as a board and a team is a lot different to what it was in the past.
“When you have players who are professionals, it will be different to what it was when they were amateurs as you couldn’t expect much since they came in the evenings to train. Now you can see the players are winning and small steps are being taken.”
One major factor that has helped the national team grow is the ICCA. Players sweat it out at the state-of-the-art facility during their training sessions.
Also, the ICCA have been in a strategic partnership with the ECB, as part of their High Performance programme, since 2014. That means ICCA’s staff share their expertise with the UAE players and also help arrange matches with visiting teams who train at the venue while preparing for upcoming tours.
This has allowed the UAE to play against a variety of opponents including some of the English counties that toured during pre-season in March.
With the cricketers also putting in up to three hours in the gym a day under the watchful eyes of Peter Kelly – sports science lead at ICCA and UAE’s strength and conditioning coach – Will Kitchen has noticed a big change in the players’ fitness levels.
“Absolutely, it’s totally different,” said Kitchen, who oversees the High Performance programme and is the general manager of the ICCA. “We have got a group of highly-tuned athletes.
“When we took them on last June, they were talented players but weren’t playing on a daily basis. There are still areas to improve but I think we are getting to see the real benefits of the programme they’ve been undertaking.”
One player who has been there every step of the way – from being an amateur to a professional – is skipper Mustafa.
The 28-year-old all-rounder has played a pivotal role in the team’s recent surge and is pleased the hard work is beginning to pay off after a difficult start.
“After the Scotland tour, there were some saying there was no use in giving us contracts,” he said.
“I always believed you have to be patient and we are practising hard and working on our weaknesses. We have improved a lot and I’m 100-per-cent sure will be even better this time next year,” added the left-handed batsman.
Sharing that vision is Brown who has no doubt that having centrally contracted players is an “enormous” boost. “If you are working with part-time players the impact can be quite limited,” he said.
“You need to have a core of players to reinforce the team’s values and it’s really important for them to realise what they want to be. We are getting there and have seen that in the last 12 months.”
World domination. There is no better way to describe the NBA’s ultimate goal. And where countless supervillains in cliché action movies have failed, the league has thrived to the point where it’s no longer a pipe dream, but an inevitability.
There is no corner of the globe the NBA doesn’t want to reach and the league’s interest in Dubai highlights just how concerted its effort is to expand.
In the UAE, basketball may be far down the list of most popular sports, trailing football and cricket by a wide margin. Yet, the NBA is more than just the product on the court and a city like Dubai fits the mould of what the league is looking for in a potential hub.
Which is why the emirate could very well be hosting an NBA preseason game in two to three years, according to Ben Morel, senior vice president and managing director of Europe, Middle East and Africa.
The league’s Global Games series has travelled to 20 different countries since the first international contest took place back in 1978 and the UAE could soon join that exclusive club.
“It would be great to do that in the next two or three years,” Morel said at a media gathering on a trip to Dubai last month. “In terms of our calendar it’s pretty compact, but we’re looking at pre-season, sometime in October.”
It’s a notion that would make any basketball fan in the region giddy. Dubai has previously hosted high profile events like the exhibition between Duke University and the UAE national team in 2011 and the FIBA U17 World Championship in 2014, but the presence of the NBA would be ground-breaking.
Bringing an NBA game to Dubai, however, is contingent on the availability of a suitable venue capable of hosting such a massive undertaking and currently, it’s unclear if one exists.
As it stands, Hamdan Sports Complex, which hosted the aforementioned FIBA U17 World Championship, remains the best option, but is also less than ideal. For one, the multi-purpose arena is primarily used for swimming and would require some adaptation in terms of positioning the court and seating.
While there are workable solutions to that issue, there isn’t one for the venue’s location, which is not the most accessible. Located off Emirates Road, transportation can be a hurdle when it comes to HSC.
Alternatives are limited right now but one of Dubai’s great qualities, and perhaps its most defining, is its constant development. In what would be very fitting of the city’s identity, an NBA game could be played at a venue that has yet to even be built – or yet to be completed anyway.
Dubai-based holding company Meraas announced last November that a 20,000-seat indoor arena next to City Walk is in the works. Set up to be the city’s premier entertainment venue, the 500,000 square foot Dubai Arena is expected to be completed by the end of 2018, which conveniently fits Morel’s timeline for bringing a game to the UAE.
The venue will also be managed by AEG Ogden, part of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which is affiliated with renowned sites like The O2 in London and Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Morel didn’t confirm if Dubai Arena has indeed been circled by the NBA, but said: “We are actively looking at the opportunities. We do need some arena standards. There are a lot of ongoing projects, so we’re carefully monitoring the situation to be able to do that in the near future.”
He added: “I think it’s something where basketball belongs, rather than giving it a size restriction. We can be flexible. The NBA is beyond basketball, it’s a show. You’d want to do a game justice and make sure for one night, the people from the region can actually experience what an NBA game is. So we want to make sure we’ve got the capability to reproduce it.”
Even if Dubai Arena ends up as the elixir that enables the NBA to come to Dubai, hosting a game can’t be the be-all and end-all.
As Morel explains, games in the region would be great, but it would only be for one night. The league is thinking bigger than that and is equally focused on bringing the complete NBA experience to fans and creating new followers.
How does the NBA plan to do that? Grassroots initiatives are at the top of the list and Jr. NBA programmes could be brought over to develop the youth.
For example, Morel envisions potentially taking 30 schools and affiliating each one with an NBA team and creating a mini tournament to both educate and grow the love of the game.
On the entertainment side, outdoor spaces and malls in Dubai could host NBA festivals or zones to inspire more engagement and hand-on experiences.
At the end of the day though, the NBA’s biggest play to draw an international audience has been, and will continue to be, through the use of technology.
Compared to every major sporting league worldwide, the NBA has been at the forefront for offering digital content, from social media to YouTube and everything in between.
But this past season, the league reached new heights by offering a ‘mobile view’ for League Pass and games in virtual reality. With how popular technology is in Dubai, as well as the omnipresence of mobile phones, the new features are sure to be loved in the region.
“It’s the start of VR, but we believe basketball has a huge opportunity there because we’ve got the best seats in the world of sports with our courtside seats,” Morel said.
“If you can replicate that courtside seat experience, whether you’re in Latin America, the US, Dubai or China and you’re sitting on your sofa and saying ‘What are we doing tonight, this morning or this afternoon? Let’s be at the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden.’ This is where it’s all
NBA brand stores are also on the way. The Middle East’s first store will arrive in Qatar by the end of the year, followed by one in Dubai. A store may have already opened in the region had it not been for the league’s apparel partnership transitioning from Adidas to Nike for next season, but the wait should be well worth it considering the Swoosh’s presence in the emirates.
“I know Dubai is a very, very important market for Nike specifically and basketball is one of the big global marketplaces for them, so expect some strong NBA Nike activity in this area,” Morel said.
It all sounds promising, but Dubai’s population and culture make it a unique challenge for the NBA. Fortunately, the league appears up to the task and while the region will require some trial and error, the NBA’s appetite to be a global entity is too much of a driving force.
“We have an enormous following in the Middle East, but we’re not doing enough… It’s an area of the world where I think we should be doing more,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
“I’d say we just haven’t figured out a way to crack the market yet. But I think that there’s a lot more that we can and will do there.”