In our final edition of ‘The Qualifiers in Focus’ we look at French outfit Toulouse Olympique and preview our concluding fixture in the seven-game competition.
Toulouse Olympique are slightly different to most ‘franchises’, the simple fact being that they aren’t historically one. The club were formed in 1935 and are steeped in history within the French game. Toulouse were originally invited to play in the Championship (then National League One) by the RFL in 2009. Because this was during the infamous licensing period, there would be no direct route to Super League for Toulouse until 2012.
Olympique lasted just three seasons in the Championship and at the end of the 2011 season, they announced their intention to return to the Elite One Championship in France.
After securing their sixth French title in 2015, the Blagnac-based side announced it would be returning to the RFL system – in League 1 – a year later. Though the club lost the League 1 promotion final to Rochdale Hornets, they wouldn’t be denied promotion to the Championship when they triumphed over Barrow Raiders 32-22, before picking up the Championship Shield – with a 44-14 victory over Sheffield Eagles – a year later.
Season so far
This season, Toulouse have lost six games, they continue to improve year after year having finished 5th last season and only points difference has prevented them from finishing second in the table this time around.
No-one can deny that Toulouse play an exciting brand of Rugby, the Blues starred at this year’s Summer Bash to throttle London Broncos 40-28 and have been one of the trailblazers in revitalising the second-tier this term. However, could their expansive style prove to be their biggest downfall?
Both Toulouse and Toronto Wolfpack were invited to participate in this year’s Magic Weekend, in a bid to promote the game on a global scale and advertise the fine talents currently on display in the Championship.
Although the French outfit did commendably score 30 points, they left themselves a little short in defence as a result of their ‘all-out attack’ mindset and consequently conceded 43 points.
In recent weeks, Toulouse also suffered a disappointing 19-14 defeat at Halifax – no team above 6th placed Leigh Centurions have conceded more points than Toulouse in the Championship this season.
Having said that, they have scored an astounding 900 points of their own – a figure beaten only by London Broncos who have 907.
Sylvain Houles has led the Olympique to yet another stunning campaign and with talent such as Mark Kheirallah, Tony Maurel, Stanislas Robin and Mourad Kriouache amongst their ranks, who’s to say we won’t be seeing Super League Rugby at the Stade Ernest-Argeles come the start of next season?
36-year-old Houles is now in his sixth year at the helm and has led the club to two French Championships, a Lord Derby cup, promotion to the Betfred Championship and one Championship Shield win. With such a record, Houles has developed into one of the most successful coaches within the game. At 36, the former France international has his best years ahead of him and may well develop into one of the all-time greats, should he continue his fine run and knack of winning trophies.
A sheep-farmer by day, Houles is undoubtedly one of the most committed coaches around. As per the Guardian, Eddy Pettybourne revealed former France international Houles – who enjoyed five years in England with Huddersfield, London, Dewsbury and Wakefield – wakes up at 3am every morning to work on his farm, before commuting for over an hour to travel to Toulouse’s training base.
Pettybourne also cited Houles as one of the best coaches he’s ever worked under and like so many others, has tipped him to be coaching in Super League – or possibly even the NRL – in the very near future.
34-year-old Sébastien Planas is Toulouse’s long-serving skipper. The second-rower/centre is a club stalwart, having played the entirety of his 11-year professional career with the Olympique.
Planas has struggled with his injuries throughout this spell, but is still nearing 200 appearances for the club. He was also included in France’s 2008 world cup squad.
Despite being sidelined for large parts of the first-half of this season, the veteran hasn’t showed any signs of hanging up his boots just yet, after scoring during Toulouse’s 44-18 demolition of Dewsbury Rams last month.
One to watch
In the last edition of ‘The Qualifiers in Focus’ we looked Kieran Dixon’s influence within the London Broncos’ attacking plays, here we take a look at another highly-rated back-rower – Toulouse full-back Mark Kheirallah.
Despite being born in Darlinghurst, New South Wales, Australia, 28-year-old Kheirallah has played the vast majority of his seven-year career in Toulouse.
After playing a solitary game for NRL’s Sydney Roosters in 2011, the full-back moved to Toulouse ahead of the 2012 campaign and hasn’t looked back since.
He is capable of filling the void at both full-back or in the halves and is equally as devastating in either role. Kheirallah is a broad figure who is strong in defence, but also possesses breathtaking pace and power which has seen his develop into a deadly finisher.
The France international – after qualifying on residency – has a knack of stepping up in big games and was the star of the show at this year’s Summer Bash at Bloomfield Road in Blackpool.
If Salford are to triumph over the French, it is crucial that the Red Devils backline nullify the numerous threats Kheirallah alone poses.
When’s the game?
Salford host Toulouse in their final game of the Qualifiers at the AJ Bell Stadium, which is currently scheduled for Sunday 30th September with a kick-off time of 3pm but is subject to change.
Ticket details will be revealed in due course.