Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Sunday's Coming: Toulouse Olympique

Sunday brings Toulouse Olympique to Spotland, a French juggernaut en-route to Super League come hell or high-water.  As Hornets face their toughest #FrenchInvasion yet we take a look at what’s coming our way.

Don’t mention the war
France's Vichy Government: Big fans of Rugby Union -
and the Third Reich.
Toulouse Olympique were founded on 22 October 1937 by the Française de Rugby à XIII as a way of establishing the game in the city.

In 1939 Toulouse reached the French Cup final, but their success was put on hold when -  like other rugby league clubs in France -  they were compelled to play Nazi-backed Rugby Union following the ban on rugby league by the Vichy regime in France.  Their stadium was also confiscated by the State, like most of the assets of the French Federation of rugby league.

Post-war the battered French Championship was reformed and Toulouse got to the final in both the 1944-45 and 1945-46 seasons - losing both times to the Canaries of Carcassonne. Indeed, Toulouse have played in six Coupe de Lord Derby  finals, but have never won the competition. However, they have been champions of France on four occasions, as well as runners-up five times.

In 1995, on the back of the city’s links to the European Space programme, Toulouse Olympique changed their name to ’Toulouse Spacers’. They stuck a rocket on the badge and played under that name until this until 2002 - winning one championship.

By then Toulouse began voicing ambitions to join the ‘European’ Super League, but in 2003, the RFL blew out their application in favour of Catalans Dragons. In 2005 Olympique became the first French club to reach the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup, beating Widnes 40-24, before going down by 56-18 to Leeds at the Galpharm Stadium.

Tray bien: The French League champions win a large tea-tray.
Having been denied a Super League licence, Toulouse joined the UK’s National League in 2009. Having reached the lofty heights of 4th, they finished the season 10th out of 11 teams in their first season. In the 2010 season, the club knew it needed to reach the Grand Final to qualify for Super League consideration. They finished 8th. In 2011, they got relegated, so they returned to the French Elite Championship after the Super League ‘experiment’  was deemed ‘unsuccessful’.

Back in French competition Toulouse won Championship Finals back to back in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons - which gave them the impetus to apply once again top play in the UK’s pro ranks.

Winner winner, poulet dinner
With ambitions to play their way through the ranks and into Super League contention, Toulouse arrive at Spotland on Sunday with a formidable 2016 season start behind them. They’ve now won all six of their matches on their return to British rugby league. So far they’ve beaten:

Wath Brow Hornets 14 - 32 (Ch. Cup) (A)
Coventry Bears 54 - 6 (H)
Hemel Stags 74 - 0 (H)
Gloucestershire All Golds 62 - 28  (Ch. Cup) (H)
South Wales Scorpions 0 - 64 (A)
Leigh Centurions 10 - 8 (Ch. Cup) (H)

Cynics may suggest that a) playing amateurs/the weaker sides in League 1 and b) playing four of six games at home gives an unrealistic picture of just what Toulouse are really capable of. But the last result on that list will have made every team in League 1 sit up and take notice, as Olympique saw off perpetual SL pretenders/Championship bottlers Leigh last week.

In a game where both sides scored just one try each, Toulouse were were 8-0 up at the break after Bastien Canet's converted try and a Mark Kheirallah penalty. Leigh levelled the scores with a Sam Hopkins try and a couple of Martyn Ridyard goals, but a brace of Mark Kheiralla penalties that saw the French side home.

We’re just a speed-bump
Toulouse are coached by former French international Sylvain Houles. Houles toured New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in 2001 and played for Huddersfield, London Broncos Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and Dewsbury Rams.

Houles is already dismissing a year in League one as an irritating speed-bump in Toulouse’s five year plan to get into Super League. Speaking at the Season Launch in February he said: "The long-term aim is Super League and in the short term we have to get to the Championship as quickly as we can. We need to win (League 1)  this year.”

“We don't want to put ourselves under pressure but we would have to bring in new players to compete in the Championship. We have to be realistic, there are full-time teams and a lot of quality teams in the Championship. It is a tough competition, we've been there."
Mark Kheiralla playing
for Newtown Jets

And - in order to navigate the League 1 speed-bump as expediently as possible, Toulouse are running a full-time squad packed with antipodean journeymen/mercenaries - a veritable Foreign Legion.

• Aussie Mark Kheiralla - ex Mascot/Souths junior, ex Sydney Roosters Toyota cup, Ex Newtown Jets, ex Wyong Roos, ex-Kurri Kurri Bulldogs  now pulling the strings at Toulouse. Played in the Jets' 2012 New South Wales Cup Grand Final win over the Balmain Ryde-Eastwood Tigers - and one game in the NRL for the Roosters (v Canberra 2011, Round 17). At home in either half-back berth or at full-back

• Kiwi forward Tyla Hepi - ex-Glenora Bears, ex-Port Chevalier Pirates (NZ), Ex- All Golds, Hull KR and Whitehaven. Son of ex-hornet Brad Hepi.

• Gregory White (born in Manly New South Wales, Australia) is a dual rugby union and rugby league utility, with French, English and Australian nationality.

• Kuni MInga - a Papua New Guinean winger formerly of TNA Simbu Lions in PNG’s Digicel Cup.

Jonathan Ford playing
for Newtown Jets
• Brit Danny Hulme  - son of David Hulme - who scored the fastest hat trick of tries for Widnes Vikings against Halifax in 2011.

• Australian Jonathan Ford - former Macquarie Scorpions Junior also ex Newtown Jets, ex-Wyong Roos, ex- Newcastle Knights, played three games in the NRL for the Rosters and has six international caps for the Cook Islands - one as captain in their recent Asia-Pacific World Cup Qualifying match against Tonga.

• Aussie loose forward Rhys Curran from the Central Coast - ex Erina Eagles, ex Balmain Tigers NSW Cup, Ex-Villeneuve.

• Kiwi and French International (12 caps)  hooker Kane Bentley: Has played almost all of his senior football in France. Ex- Marseilles, ex-Catalans Dragons, ex-Pia, ex-Lezignan, Ex Dewsbury and ex-Boston 13s in the USA RL. His family came to France when his dad went  to France to play rugby league for La Réole.

• Kiwi - and French International (9 caps) second row Andrew Bentley. Older brother of Kane Bentley. Ex-Catalans Dragons, ex-Lezignan.

Let’s ‘ave it.
Ahead of last weekend, Franco-sceptics might’ve suggested that giving Toulouse a raft of ‘gimme’ games at home against the weaker sides in League 1 (or away games at sides of an even lower standard) gave us - and them - a false impression of how good they really are.

Last week’s result against Leigh suggests that they might actuallty be as good as they think they are. But Sunday’s game provides them with their sternest test yet - an away game against serious League 1 opposition. We’ll see how they really travel and perform against a side that will - in the words of Denis Betts - ‘rough ‘em up a bit’.

We think it’s a fascinating contest that will benchmark both sides’ ambitions for the season - as big as games get at our level. You’d be mad to miss it.