Tana, Toulon, and the Expectation of Rugby Success

James MortimerAnalyst IJanuary 26, 2009

With Toulon struggling to be remotely competitive in the Top 14, the premier division of French rugby, it is likely that the former All Black captain Tana Umaga will fall on his sword.


The French media have described the club as the “Harlem Globetrotters of Rugby.” Unfortunately, this is not entirely apt.  Opposition teams of the class of Toulouse and Stade Francais do not fold to the superstar laden team coached by Umaga, and this is a lesson that is being quickly learned by the faithful.


Or more to the point, it is a lesson that perhaps will never be learnt. 


Mourad Boudjellal has tried to rejuvenate the club with little concern for the club's rich history.  Some of the wise heads of European rugby regard the club as little more than a circus, or a country club for famous internationals wanting a rugby vacation.


Toulon, founded in 1908 is hardly some rich man’s fantasy team.  They have won the French championship on three occasions, in 1931, 1987 and 1992.  But modern history has seen them go in and out of the top flight (the Top 14) and the second division (Pro D2).  Financially destroyed in the 1990’s, they won promotion to the Top 14 in 2005 after winning the Pro D2. 


However, as they are finding this season, there is a huge difference between the two divisions in France, and were relegated back after just one year.


It was here the Boudjellal began to play fantasy football.  George Gregan, Anton Oliver, Andrew Mehrtons, Dan Luger and Victor Matfield signed contracts, as well as Umaga himself earning a reported 300,000 Euro’s for playing just a handful of games.


After being charmed by Toulon, Umaga returned to coach the star laden team, who lived up to their globetrotter reputation by sweeping through the Pro D2 and once again gaining promotion the Top 14 championship.


But, despite the arrivals of former All Black Jerry Collins and high profile League convert Sonny Bill Williams, they have struggled at the premier level.  Most of their initial glamour signings have departed, but despite still boasting a cadre of talent, the team still struggles.


Some argue that it is the fact that these players come so celebrated and paid so much, that they are never going to translate their performance to the park.  Jerry Collins remarked after last year’s Barbarians match against Australia that he had not played to full potential in France. 


Umaga has been assured he is safe, but one only has to remember Tim Lane to understand that such promises mean little to eccentric millionaires.  Boudjellal wants success.  He wants another Top 14 championship for the club. 


But, unlike his business of publishing comic book strips, such fantasies need to be accompanied by desire and hard grind on the paddock.


When Eddie Jones Saracens played them last year, he remarked that they were hardly impressive as a pure rugby team.  With the exception of Matfield and Oliver, there has not been considerable focus on the tight five of Toulon.  This was an observation noted by Jones.


Superstars in the backs and globally recognised (if not declining) back rowers do not make an exceptional rugby team. 


Equally, poor discipline does not translate to championship glory.  Surely the recruitment of media feted trouble makers such as Matt Henjak and Williams was not so much for the men to win rugby, as much as get away.


Or, to live the high life of the French Riviera!  Many of the team, Umaga included, received houses and fast cars as part of their recruitment packages.


Boudjellal will likely never learn.  A turnstile of high profile coaches and players does not win titles or success, but a man of his reported ego has trouble listening to rugby common sense.


But the tragedy in this lies with Umaga.  A tale the RFU and Martin Johnson may soon come to learn unless English rugby conjures a miracle in the next 12 months. 


Tana Umaga filled with mana, he which left New Zealand rugby in the prime of his game.  One of the great centres of modern rugby has now learned a harsh lesson, and inadvertently had a stain put on his great rugby resume.  Great captains are not guaranteed great coaches.


Umaga, who reportedly left New Zealand to escape the pressure of fame, has now paid the price of another kind.  To win a second division competition with a galaxy of stars is one thing, to compete against top level teams and coaches in the Top 14 is all but impossible for a coaching novice.


It is likely that with Philippe Saint Andre will take Umaga’s place— a man who has now a decade of coaching experience and more qualified to assist Boudjellal on his chase. 


Umaga has now seen the fires of coaching, and must decide on whether or not to persist.  Two or three years of domestic coaching could enable him to aim for a glamour post within the New Zealand ranks—as knows the complexities of New Zealand landscape more intimately than the foreign fields of French rugby.