The ever-changing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have seen most clubs’ preparations for the new season torn up and re-written on a daily basis but nowhere has the impact been greater felt than at Toulouse Olympique.
What should have been a period of joyous anticipation of an historic debut season in Super League has been turned into a nightmare of ever-changing legislation from the UK and French governments.
Differences in travel restrictions, attendance levels and rules on quarantine and vaccinations have threatened to derail the French club’s first season in the top flight before it even begins.
At the heart of all of this turbulence is Toulouse Olympique’s Chief Executive Cedric Garcia, who took time from spinning plates to speak to League Express’s man in the south of France Steve Brady.
SB: Cedric, thanks for finding the time to speak to us, you must be very busy at the moment?
CG: “We are used to be being busy, and the problems we are dealing with now are the same ones we have been dealing with for the past two years so we are handling things as best as we can.
“It’s the uncertainty that makes it so much more difficult. When you know where you are going and what you need to do you have everything in your control and you work as hard as you can to reach your targets.
“The biggest problem we have is that we do something then the rules change and we have to do it all again and be aware that things are likely to change again.”
SB: Is there any sign of an end to the current predicament?
CG: “Like everybody else we are hoping that this is the last big wave of infections with the pandemic so once it passes we can look at the season with more certainty.
“We’re all crossing our fingers that things will ease. I try to stay optimistic and positive and I can see two good signs about the current situation with the pandemic.
“The first thing is that the UK and France are pretty much at the same stage of the virus. If one was behind the other it could mean major problems with travel regulations.
“The second thing is that the number of cases in France and the UK has risen so sharply in a short space of time, hopefully they will drop at the same rate.
“It’s a difficult and bitter truth to admit but it seems a good thing that so many people have caught the latest version so quickly, especially the fact that it seems the symptoms are not as severe and not as many people are going to hospital.
“The speed of the recent rise in figures makes me optimistic that we can move on to the next chapter very soon.”
SB: How are you trying to deal with such a difficult situation?
CG: “We met last week with Catalans Dragons, the RFL and Super League and although the French Federation could not attend it is important to stress that they are right in the middle of talks with the French government’s Ministry of Sport.
“We are all working together to gather the most up-to-date information we can to anticipate what could happen within the next month.
“Our season starts in five weeks’ time and in terms of Covid that is a very long time. The visibility of both governments is one to two weeks maximum so everything could change dramatically before Super League begins.
“We have good contacts with the French Ministry of Sport, with our friends in rugby union, and I think we have access to the maximum of live information which helps us try to anticipate things.
“It’s difficult for everyone, but if we can take something positive out of this it is that we are all working together and everybody is bringing as much information as possible to the table and sharing with the other parties.”
SB: Have you sought assistance from external sources?
CG: “Here at Toulouse we have good relations with the EPCR which runs the European Champions Cup for rugby union. They have two rounds coming up on the 15th and 22nd of January and this will be a good indication of where we all stand.
“I am meeting regularly with the CEO of Stade Toulousain (French rugby union champions who share Stade Ernest Wallon with T.O.) and he keeps me up to date with everything EPCR.
“We are engaging in dialogue with the Ministries on both sides of the Channel with a view to providing all of the exemptions we will need to be able to complete the season.
“We’re dealing with it.”
SB: How are you attracting new supporters in the face of current restrictions?
CG: “Of course, all of the uncertainty has affected our season-ticket sales because people are not sure how many games they will be able to see. We started our sales campaign at the end of October with special rates and we were going well until the restrictions returned and slowed everything down.
“We had to cancel two of our sponsors’ events because of the latest legislation restricting assemblies so it’s tough at the moment.
“We were really on a good roll but the latest developments pretty much froze everything.
“All we can hope for is that in a couple of weeks we will have brighter news and some positivity will return and then we will push forward with season ticket sales right up to the start of the campaign.”
SB: Will your focus now be on week-to-week promotion of fixtures?
CG: “We have already invested time and money into the promotion of individual games but the rule at the moment is 5,000-maximum supporters for games, with no bars or refreshment facilities, so it is extremely difficult.
“We sure hope that by the 12th of February things will have eased and we will have better conditions to play and celebrate the historic first-ever game of Super League for Toulouse Olympique.
“It is huge for us but we are a bit tied right now.”
SB: If the current restrictions remain, are home fixtures viable financially?
CG: “I cannot lie, if we were to put our first game on tomorrow under the current restraints, it wouldn’t be the best situation.
“Just imagine your first game in history of Super League and you can only have 5,000 supporters with no bars and everything else that makes matchday such a special event. It would be very sad.
“But we have always faced challenges the same way: there are things we can control and things we can’t. We just get on with it.
“If it is the case that the rules haven’t changed by the 12th of February, we will deal with it.
“Maybe I am guilty of being too positive or optimistic but I am pretty sure that that will not be the case.”
SB: How are negotiations going for increased television coverage of Super League games in France?
CG: “I am very limited in what I can cay because everything is quite rightly confidential in such negotiations but I can tell you two things.
“First of all, the real positive thing is that Toulouse Olympique, Catalans Dragons and the French Federation, with the support of Super League, are working together with a common strategy and a common goal.
“At this stage I cannot give you any names of any TV channels but things are moving forward and we sure hope that we can get something before the start of the season.
“I have nothing concrete now but we are all seeking a common goal.”
SB: We haven’t yet seen the T.O. playing kit for SL 2022, is there a problem?
CG: “We’ve been struggling a little with the release of our kit for 2022 and I would love to give you a date but I am worried that we may not meet that deadline.
“We hope we can release it in the next two weeks is all I can say. It’s a complicated situation with our promotion to Super League and keeping our valued sponsors happy but added to this is that our kit suppliers have been massively impacted by Covid.
“They have their factories in Asia and it would have been impossible to transport the kit here under the current rules so they had to source a factory in Europe which has also delayed our plans.
“We are late and I am not happy about that but it is what it is this year, and next year will be better.”
SB: Will you stick to the unique floral pattern of recent seasons?
CG: “I can exclusively reveal that there won’t be any flowers on the kit for 2022 in case anybody was wondering. But you can expect something different is all I can say, that’s what we do here.”
SB: Beyond the coming season, what are the plans for Toulouse Olympique?
CG: “It’s always been my chairman (Bernard Sarrazain)’s objective to work for this club but also for Rugby League in general.
“We won’t change that, we like to get together with people, there is a French expression which translates into English as ‘Alone, you go faster, but together you go further’.
“We need to change the dimension of Rugby League in France.
“We have got a fantastic opportunity with ourselves coming up into Super League and hopefully the Rugby League World Cup being held here in 2025.
“If we can seize those two opportunities I am sure that the entire sport can go into another dimension.
“If we miss these chances, I don’t know what will happen after that. Maybe we would need new directors, new leadership.
“But we have got in front of us some massive prospects and if we are able to seize them we need to be all together.
“I have just had a meeting with the regional council of the French Federation and we will continue to work on the ‘Club Amis’ which is a partnership with other French clubs.
“We have linked up with all of the clubs in the Haut Garonne and we will try to widen it to Midi Pyrénées and all of these clubs will be invited here to Stade Ernest Wallon for rugby schools and allowing young players to become ball-boys.
“It is only by pulling together will we get through this Covid storm and we will be much better for it on the other side.”
This is a longer version of the story available in the regular weekly edition of League Express published on Monday 10th January 2022.