Belfast Telegraph

Toulon's vast resources can halt the slump in European Champions Cup

By Michael Sadlier

They've certainly had some problems winning away from home and there have been issues with them losing focus in certain home games, while discipline-wise things could definitely have been better.

Sounds a bit like Ulster but, in actual fact, we're talking Toulon here. Yes, Toulon.

Having been top of the Top 14 tree at Christmas, the current European and domestic champions now find themselves third in the table after losing their last three away games at Montpellier, Stade Francais and struggling Castres with the latter reverse being back in November.

Hardly the best form to be bringing in to the final two weekends of European pool action and though they do lead Pool Three and have Ulster at home on Saturday, there is a very nasty look about their last game at the Scarlets who they hosted in the first round of matches and, surprisingly, found it tough enough to beat the Welsh side and did so without bagging a bonus point.

Indeed, factor in their last-gasp 25-21 European reverse at Leicester Tigers, chiefly recalled for Martin Castrogiovanni's expletive-laden outburst afterwards and the difficulties Delon Armitage landed himself in as well, and the French giants have managed to lose on the last four occasions they have played outside their fortress at Stade Felix Mayol.

In the scheme of things, the attrition that is the Top 14 does tend to see rotation for away games but getting hammered 30-6 at championship rivals Stade Francais just after Christmas is just not what is supposed to happen to the hugely expensive squad which club president and comic book multi-millionaire Mourad Boudjellal has assembled.

In fact, that defeat allowed Stade to rack up the double over Toulon as the Paris-based side have been the only ones to get the better of Boudjellal's squad on their own patch this season.

Indeed, marauding centre Mathieu Bastareaud broke down after that defeat to Stade and declared himself "a zombie" which, again, did little to dispel the notion that there are issues at the star-studded club.

"Since the beginning of the season I haven't been able to find my form. I'm a zombie," Bastareaud said afterwards.

"I think that now I've come to the end of the road. There comes a time when you have to say 'stop!'"

And all this came before they were turned over again the following weekend - on January 3 - at Montpellier, now under the guidance of Jake White.

Even last weekend, there were worrying signs when they racked up a 32-23 home win over Racing Metro in that it only took a late Matt Giteau try to secure the game after Toulon had looked home and hosed after having built up a commanding 22-3 lead.

Mind you, Toulon still bagged four tries and have now possibly sorted out the fallout from Monsieur Bastareaud's laments as the game against Racing brought together what could prove to be a dream combination with Giteau featuring at inside centre beside the also recently returned star-turn Juan Martin Hernandez, who also shone at out-half.

Problems? Yes, but, then again, this is Toulon and with their frightening resources there always seems to be a way out of trouble.

Jack McGrath will be free to start Ireland's RBS 6 Nations campaign after Leinster chose not to appeal against his three-week ban for stamping on Ulster's Rory Best. McGrath will miss Leinster's European Champions Cup Pool Two matches but will then return in time for Ireland's Six Nations opener in Italy.

Belfast Telegraph

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