Houles believes in French bid

Sylvain Houles believes Rugby League in France will go supernova if Toulouse Olympique join Super League.

The 39-year-old coach says his team is “ready to roll” and excited by the challenge ahead, whether that is a tilt at winning the Championship in 2021 or being allowed early entry to the top flight because of Toronto Wolfpack’s departure.

“Oh yes, we really believe in it,” Houles told League Express.

“The whole process of Toulouse aiming for the top tier started 20 years ago and now we are really ready for it. This team is in place and the team outside of the playing squad has created the structure necessary to compete in Super League.

“We are playing in a new stadium that is one of the best in the game and the current squad is very capable of gaining promotion next year.

“Obviously, if the decision is made to replace Toronto with ourselves then we would be looking at maybe three or four more recruits to strengthen the playing group.

“That’s the only thing we would need to do because everything else is in place. And it won’t be hard to find players, there is a lot of quality on the market at the moment.

“So we do believe in it, and if the right time is now, we are ready, we are really excited about it.”

Olympique have a healthy relationship with the current French team in Super League, Catalans Dragons, but Houles is hoping for a fierce rivalry on the pitch which will help boost support for the game in France.

He said, “It has always been our vision to have a French team alongside Catalans and it would be an incredible boost for the game here.

“It is our responsibility to create this on-field rivalry. We’ve got great respect for each other off the pitch but as sportsmen we want to be competitive for 80 minutes.

“It’s my vision that we have a Super League fixture list where supporters in France look eagerly for the dates when Toulouse play Catalans and vice-versa. If we can do that I truly believe the game can grow fast and strong very quickly.

“And also in England, I think Toulouse have a lot to bring to the game because of the style we play, a growing French influence on the game would create a lot of interest I think.”

The decision not to allow Toronto back into Super League next year may have opened the door for clubs like Toulouse but coach Houles feels bittersweet about the Wolfpack’s apparent demise.

“It’s a tough one,” he said: “We’ve played Toronto many times over the past two years, we’ve lost seven games and won just one so they were our biggest enemies if you like.

“But I have to say we enjoyed going there, we enjoyed the whole experience with the crowds at the stadium and the games were always very physical and competitive.

“So the whole experience was good but it was also very tough too. Coming from Toulouse, we had to take an extra flight to the UK before crossing to Canada. We had to stay one more night in London before the flight to Toronto and it’s probably what cost us a couple of times against our promotion rivals Featherstone.

“We were losing a couple of days more than any other team in the Championship. Going to Toronto and then playing Featherstone five days later took its toll on us.

“Winning the Championship is tough enough but every time we played in Toronto we lost two or three days on the trip.

“I think it’s very hard to ask professional sportsmen to do this, so in that respect we will not miss going to Toronto. But it’s a real shame because of all the hard work they have put in; I’m not sure what will happen to the club now.

“I feel really sorry for the players and supporters but I won’t miss the demands of travelling there.”

Houles has a reputation for thinking outside of the box and he is keen to foster relationships with the French rugby union champions who ground-share at Stade Ernest-Wallon.

He added, “There’s a lot of interest in Rugby League down here, and even in the rugby union world they know what we are doing. We share a stadium with Stade Toulousain and their coaches are very interested in what we are trying to do.

“We are trying to breed a very open mind at our club, we have shared coaching sessions with the Stade, we have a very strong relationship with Catalans, and it seems to be working.

“We’ve played some union with Stade and we took some things out of it, as I’m sure they did too. They are like ourselves, they like to play wide, expansive rugby so our relationship is working very well.”

Houles’ new-look squad for 2021 was expected to come together on Monday for the first time since Coronavirus hit the game eight months ago, but the initial training session has been postponed.

French international hooker Eloi Pelissier is the latest addition following the recent acquisition of Mitch Garbutt and Joseph Paulo plus the rumoured arrival of fellow St Helens star Dom Peyroux and coach Houlés is keen to get to grips with his players.

He said, “We were supposed to start this coming Monday but it looks like we won’t be playing before March now so we’ve pushed it back another three weeks and we will start training on the 30th November.

“Because of lockdown we are keeping in touch online and the players were all keen and ready to start on the ninth so they are a little disappointed and frustrated at the moment. But they are keeping fit which is so important because from day one we need to be ready to start our normal pre-season programme.

“They’ve been disappointed and frustrated since mid-March so I try to tell them that we are nearly towards the end of this period, we have to accept what’s happened and move on.

“We’re being positive at all times, we are all speaking about the new signings we have made, the players read the newspapers and they can see that this club is ready to go to another level. And that adds to the frustration because we can’t wait to start and put all of this planning into practise.

“We’ve been working very hard with the Directors of the club over the past seven years, and gradually we’ve been building step-by-step. We have to be very careful where we put our money, into new players, staff or structures, and this year has been the most difficult obviously because of the virus.

“But we’re very happy with the support we have been given and we feel we are in a better position than ever to make a challenge for Super League.

“We are all working in the same direction and I think our recruitment and retention process over the years has created the best-ever squad for Toulouse. Over the past two years that process has intensified and I’m very happy with our group for 2021.

“All we can do is continue to plan for next year’s championship – if the rugby gods decide otherwise, we will grab the chance and I’m pretty sure we could bring something really exciting to Super League.”

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