With Connacht facing French opposition in the Heineken Cup this weekend, we asked Grenoble defence and collisions coach Bernard Jackman for his expert view on Top 14 side Toulouse.
The former Leinster and Ireland hooker is enjoying great success in his role with Grenoble, who find themselves seventh in the league at the halfway point. Jackman’s side beat none other than former European giants Toulouse 25-18 last weekend, giving us a detailed reference point.
Guy Novès’ men are second in the Top 14 despite being one of four teams who have failed to win away from home yet. Their lofty position has instead been built on bonus point victories at home, and it is fair to say this Toulouse crop is not of the same calibre as the team that appeared in five Heineken Cup finals between 2003 and 2010 [winning thrice].
While Toulouse still operate with the highest annual budget in France, at just under €35.5 million, Jackman says they have found the increased spending power of their rivals difficult to deal with. The highest-profile foreign players now have a range of options should the wish to move to the Top 14. However, personnel is not the only problem.
“Toulouse are stuck with the French internationals, the last I saw they had the most national players playing every week. I actually think – this is my own opinion – that they’ve struggled with an influx of ideas into France. They’ve consistently hired from within and obviously Guy Noves has been there for a while.
“I think from a coaching point of view, they’re probably a little bit stale.”
Toulouse celebrate Heineken Cup victory in 2010. Christophe Ena/AP/Press Association Images.
Toulouse won French championships in 2011 and 2012, but they did so without the swagger and attacking flair that made them so thrilling in the noughties. Jackman feels that their current struggles to get back amongst the silverware have resulted in compounding that change in playing style.
“Because they haven’t won anything for a couple of seasons, they’ve tried to become a little bit more structured and sensible with the ball. For me, they’re actually easier to defend like that. I think that when the game opens up and they play at a high tempo, they’re pretty much the most dangerous side to play against.
“They just don’t go into that very often and they use their set piece the same way the other teams do, to win penalties. 90% of their line-outs are driven, which obviously they’re good at, but most teams can defend a driving maul pretty well.
“For me, they’d be a lot more dangerous if they tried to go off the top a lot and get the ball to their back three, which is a big strength. Without Luke McAlister [who is injured], they’re pretty easy to defend against off general phase play. If you don’t kick to their back three, they don’t get a huge amount of opportunities.”
“I think they’re easier to play against because they’ve become more predictable, that’s the short way of saying it.”
Toulouse are not the team they once were, but Jackman says they are certainly strong enough to win well against Connacht at home. Indeed, the Grenoble coach thinks Novès’ side have an outside chance of winning the competition outright, especially after winning against Saracens at Wembley in October.
Toulouse were 17-16 winners against Sarries in Round 2. Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/Press Association Images.
“The thing about them is that they’ve obviously got an unbelievable start by beating Saracens away. They’ve got a real chance now of getting a home draw out of their group, which if they do, they’ll win and they’ll be in the semi-finals.
“I still think that if they get a home quarter-final and they’re not in the top two in the Top14, they’ll really go after the Heineken Cup. They are the French team that have the best history in it and appreciate it the most. Unfortunately in France at the moment, people think the Heineken Cup is an easier win than the Top 14.”
A fading power perhaps, but Toulouse are still capable of powering past any team in Europe on their day, particularly at the Stade Ernest Wallon. There is always hope for Connacht, even if an away win is highly unlikely. Jackman says the western province must be pitch-perfect with their game plan if they are to stand a chance.
“I think a team that can play at a very high-tempo and be organized in defence can frustrate them. They [Connacht] need to be able to go six or seven phases in attack without making an error as that can really frustrate and contain them.
“Connacht can certainly do that, and they’ll have no problem playing well against Toulouse back-to-back. That’s not their problem, it’s really about what they do the week after.”
Connacht take on Toulouse on Sunday afternoon at 3.00pm Irish time. Jackman will tomorrow give us a run down on the form and capabilities of Perpignan, Munster’s opponents this weekend.
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