TOULON BEGIN THE DEFENCE OF THEIR HARD-EARNED HEINEKEN CUP NEXT WEEK, WITH MATT GITEAU DETERMINED TO PROVE THAT ONCE IS NEVER ENOUGH.
Bernard Laporte is convinced that the Heineken Cup is talking to him. Heavy and handsome – that’s the pot, not Laporte – it sits round the corner from the Head Coach’s office at Toulon’s training base and he swears that every time he walks past, he can hear it whispering to him. ‘I love it down here,’ it says. ‘The sunshine’s wonderful, the girls are gorgeous; I don’t want to leave.’ I mention this to Matt Giteau who cocks his head to one side and offers me a playful frown.
‘How the hell am I supposed to comment on that without looking like I’m a fruitcake?’ he says, not unreasonably. ‘Put it this way, it wouldn’t surprise me if Bernard thinks the cup’s talking to him. In fact it probably does but I can assure you it hasn’t said a word to me.’
It already feels like another age since Toulon outlasted Clermont-Auvergne in Dublin last May but time has not withered the memory, not least of the raucous homecoming; the trophy borne aloft at the front of a chaotic flotilla; claxons, sirens and a madding crowd twenty-deep around the harbour and draped from every balcony. It was a wonder the weight of them didn’t tip the entire town into the sea. The parade through the streets was like watching Pompey returning to Imperial Rome or the Beatles rocking up at Shea Stadium only much, much louder; some sixty thousand teeming Toulonnais in a riot of colour on every avenue and boulevard as town and team jubilated together.
‘You’ve no idea how passionate they are and how much it means to the town for us to win something and bring a trophy home to them,’ says Matt Giteau. ‘It really is a way of life. Mind you, it meant a helluva lot to me too. I’ve played a fair bit of rugby in my time for not too many titles (two Super Rugby wins) so for me it was just as big. And it really justified my decision to leave Australia and to come over here and chase something different. You know, I came here to win titles. The perception of all of us here in Toulon seems to be that it’s all about the money but for me that was never the case.’
If last year’s final did nothing else, it proved that Toulon’s mercenary image is just lazy journalism. Here was a game won against the odds by an unshakeable collective spirit, the kind of resolve that money alone simply cannot buy. Certainly the emotion at the final whistle was as raw as it was revealing.
‘It was one of the happier moments in my rugby career that’s for sure,’ says Giteau. ‘It was just a phenomenal effort by the team and whether it was a game we had the right to win doesn’t matter. We just stuck in there and stayed strong. No question it was our defence that won it for us and whenever that happens that tells you a lot about a team.’
The only thing higher than the wages at Toulon are the expectations, both without and within. A recent pratfall in the Top 14 at lowly Oyannax prompted owner Mourad Boudjellal – a man of mercurial moods – to threaten that the upcoming trips to Cardiff, Exeter and Glasgow in the Heineken Cup would all be by bus and, a week on, opinion here is still divided as to whether he actually means it. Sanctions here are draconian. Matt Giteau, for example, was deemed to be late for training the other week, whereupon he was taken outside and shot.
‘I was two minutes late for a massage; honestly, it wasn’t even my fault,’ he says. ‘But Chris Masoe who sees himself as the big bully, you know, the team enforcer, he told me to go stand near the gate which was fifteen/twenty metres away – he had a little hand gun, a BB gun – and he said ‘you stand there turn round and I’ll shoot you once.’ So I thought, okay, I can take one, so as I’ve turned round another player, Perry Gunther, has snuck up with an automatic BB gun and he goes br-r-r-r-r-rm and just let’s them go at my back. I think I cried for about ten minutes afterwards. It was pretty painful. But, in fairness, I’ve been on time ever since.’
The boy Australia once nicknamed ‘Kid Dynamite’ is now thirty-one and an honorary Frenchman; after all, hereabouts a name like Giteau leaves you only one vowel away from being a cake. His great-grandfather was the last of the clan to be born in France; a distinction now held by Matt’s son Levi, although not for much longer.
‘Yeah, well, my wife’s pregnant and due in another four weeks so I’ve been quite busy off the pitch as well. And yes, we’re sort of coming full circle what with Levi being born in Marseille and that’s very special. I did try to look into the French ancestry – I think we’re from Brittany – but Dad speaks even less French than Levi so I’m not sure I’m going to track that one down.’
Matt Giteau’s finally got someone to talk to in the dressing room this season with the arrival of Drew Mitchell – best man at his wedding and Levi’s godfather – and what with him, Ali Williams, Bryan Habana and Michael Claassens all boarding the ship, Toulon aren’t exactly dumbing down. Giteau, though, is the spark and while he may have chipped in a meagre four points out of the two hundred and forty-seven Toulon scored on the way to last season’s trophy, no one here underestimates his worth.
‘Matt Giteau when he’s in the team reassures everybody,’ says Mourad Boudjedall. ‘Yes, there’s Jonny but Matt delivers the messages, he’s the one who never makes the mistakes and when he’s on the ball no one worries.’
The bookmakers reckon that Toulon – again – will be the team to beat; frankly, 4/1 is a mighty price before a ball’s been kicked. And while winning the Heineken Cup once could be considered a career in itself, there’s nothing in sport quite like winning twice.
‘I’m sure the emotion would be different if we could do it again,’ says Giteau. ‘It’s like a girl kissing you twice. The first time it’s great but the second time really confirms that the first one wasn’t simply her mistaking you for someone else. And it’d just reinforce the point that we’re not mercenaries or one-trick ponies. I remember thinking after we won back in May that I could now finish playing rugby tomorrow and be a happy man. Obviously that was true then but it’s not now. I want to do it again.’
10 OCTOBER 2013