The Self-Isolation Chronicles: Toulouse Olympique

1. Junior Vaivai is the cousin of The Rock.

When Toulouse Olympique added Taioalo ‘Junior’ Vaivai to their squad, ahead of the current season, they had signed a relative of sporting legend. Junior’s cousin is wrestling and acting supreme Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Vaivai has represented USA in Rugby League, through an American Samoan lineage he shares with the household wrestling name. The Rock would actually play a major role in saving Vaivai’s career, after he fell out of the sport due to injury and personal issues while at Illawarra Cutters in 2013. He would only return to Wests Suburbs Red Devils in the Illawarra Rugby League competition, four years, and the current Toulouse man cited Johnson as a major inspiration to return to the game. He had spent time with the former WWE legend at his mother’s house, as Johnson urged him to continue his dreams and succeed in the sport. He would then feature for USA at the 2017 World Cup, before earning professional redemption with Hull KR and Toulouse.

2. Sylvain Houles is a sheep farmer.

Toulouse head coach Sylvain Houles has overseen a complete revolution at the club, after taking over in 2012. After winning back-to-back French Championships in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, the club were inducted into League 1 for the 2016 season. Their first season in the competition saw them finished top and remain undefeated in the regular season, before a shock Rochdale victory meant they had to take the long route to promotion. After coming up to the Championship, they won the Championship Shield in 2017, and since then have become an established force in the top four of the competition.

What makes all that even more remarkable is that Houles partners herding his Olympique players in training with herding sheep. The former France, Huddersfield, Wakefield and London Broncos winger owns a farm in nearby Albi, producing sheep milk to make Roquefort cheese (or Roquefort fromage for those on the continent).

3. They once named themselves after a space programme.

In 1995, Toulouse Olympique dropped their long-established moniker to become ‘Toulouse Spacers’ and even stuck a rocket on the badge for good measure. The move was a nod to the National Centre for Space Studies, with an office situated in Toulouse. The Toulouse Space Centre for research is the reason the City is often dubbed France’s “space capital,” with an interactive museum known as “Cité de l’Espace” one of the main attractions. Toulouse would remain the ‘Spacers’ until 2002, winning the French Championship in 2000 after a 20-18 win over AS Saint-Estève. While they may have dropped the ‘Spacers’ tag, however, the name still lives on in the city’s sporting climate. Volleyball side Spacers de Toulouse playing in the country’s premier competition, League A, and were formed in 1994. The idea for the Rugby League side to adopt the name was actually pitched by the president of basketball side “Les Spacers Toulouse” who suggested that the handball, Rugby League and volleyball side adopted their name to promote the so-called minority sports. By 1999, however, the basketball side had dropped a lower division and abandoned the concept. Toulouse Olympique was reborn in 2002, but the volleyball side have continued the name to this day.

4. They didn’t win the domestic league for 25 years.

For those who think Toulouse would have been a dominant force in the French competition, given their quality in the English competitions, you couldn’t be more wrong. The aforementioned 2000 French Championship saw them end a staggering 25-year hunt for silverware. What’s more, the club have only been French champions on six occasions since their formation in 1937. Like many of their Rugby League counterparts, they played rugby union during the Second World War. When the Rugby League Championship was restored in 1944, they lost the first two finals to Carcassonne and wouldn’t win the title for another two decades. Their first victory came in 1964-1965, defeating US Villeneuve in the final 47-15. During the 1960s, they lost four French Cup finals and had to wait another decade for a league title. But like buses on a cold Monday morning, two came at once. They beat Marseille 18-0 in 1972/1973 and backed that up with a tight 10-9 win over AS Saint-Estève to retrieve the title two years later. Their next final appearance was the 1976 cup final defeat to XIII Catalan, in an 8-23 score-line, and would be their last until their 2000 Spacers Odyssey saw them end a 25-year trophy drought.

5. Mark Kheirallah has Egyptian lineage.

Enigmatic fullback Kheirallah has, along with halfback Johnathon Ford, earned a plethora of admirers in the sport. The two, who were briefly teammates with Sydney Roosters in 2011, joined Toulouse at the turn of Sylvain Houles’ takeover and have since become assets to the side. That long stay has resulted in Kheirallah represent the France national team, showcasing his abilities at the 2017 World Cup, with Ford missing out with the Cook Islands. Kheirallah qualifies through residency for his new homeland, but his actual heritage is Egyptian-Australian. His father hails from the North African nation, while his mother is an Australian native. His uncle, through his maternal family, is also former Rochdale, Halifax and Hull FC coach Steve Linnane.