Toulouse Olympique – the French club ready to grasp a Super League opportunity

Super League hadn’t confirmed they would be taking entries to join the competition by the time Toulouse Olympique had launched their application.

Within two hours of reports emerging from within the media that Super League would launch an application process to fill their vacant twelfth position, the French club had already stated their intentions in a public declaration on social media.

It was symbolic of a club that believes it is ready for the Super League stage.

“I would say we have been preparing for this moment for more than ten years,” said chairman Bernard Sarrazain in a rare interview.

“Ever since the first time there was an application process to Super League, the former chairman and myself and the entire club have been focused on this goal.

“More recently, when Super League clubs announced that Toronto might not be in Super League next season we decided to work on the video you saw, the idea was to present all our assets and what we believe we could bring to the competition as a club but also a city and a region. We wanted to be ready.”

Toulouse have gradually worked towards reaching Super League standards since their reintroduction to the English league structure in 2016 after a four-year hiatus.

On the field, they were promoted from League 1 in their first season and have subsequently emerged as one of the Championship’s elite clubs, producing fifth, third and second-place finishes in the last three seasons.

A strong recruitment drive has seen them assemble another strong squad this year, boasting the likes of Joseph Paulo, Dom Peyroux and Mitch Garbutt. But away from on-field performance is where Sarrazain believes their main strengths lie.

“I would say we have many benefits, even if it sounds a bit pretentious,” he said.

Among those advantages is a pathway setup that boasts 19 teams including women’s and wheelchair teams, as well as a schools programme involving 2,000 children within the city.

Toulouse have 400 registered players across their teams, from under five to their reserve grade side that compete in the French Elite 1 competition.

“We set a goal each season to have one or two from our academy to sign a professional contract. For instance, we have had Bastien Ader, Anthony Marion, Maxime Pucech, Paul Marcon Gavin Marguerite, Justin Sangare, Mathieu Jussaume, Clement Boyer and this year I’m sure we could have had more than continued.

“We have a very stable club which was founded 83 years ago. We have a very good youth development setup which is one of the best, if not the best in France.

“Of course the brand of rugby that our professional team plays we believe is quite spectacular and really can attract a crowd. Of course, our results on the field have been very good and improved over the years. The stadium is one of the best in Europe and we have many French and other internationals in our team.

“Our squad for 2021 is complete and we believe it has a lot of Super League quality and shows we are ready.”

Last year they relocated to the Stade Ernest Wallon, a 19,000 capacity stadium used by rugby union giants and neighbours Stade Toulouse, the current Top 14 Champions.

It was a key move in the club’s aspirations, even if they got there via a few bumps in the road.

Toulouse had hoped to return to their traditional Stade des Minimes facility after an €8m renovation that would take the capacity to 10,000.

However, local residents complained and work was brought to a halt, leaving them at Ernest-Argelès stadium, a small stadium in Blagnac, on the outskirts in the city

But with Super League aspirations in mind, the club instead relocated to their new home, which is just a two-mile walk from the city centre.

“It’s huge to have Ernest Wallon as our home. it’s fantastic progress for our club on the sports side but also the economical side. We now have high-level facilities for our team which is state of the art with fantastic dressing rooms and everything needed. For the fans of course too, and our administration.

“On the financial, it opens many opportunities for us and that’s a first for us because we never had such a stadium. We can now for our sponsors and partners have VIP lounges all over our stadium and a full capacity of 3,500 for hospitality. To be in such a stadium allows us to change literally the dimension and attract other fans.

“For instance in 2013, we were part of the organisation of the Catalans Dragons game at Ernest Wallon against Hull KR and they were close to 15,000 spectators on the day.

“We could see rugby league really liked in this stadium. We can really explore the possibility to build our relationship with Stade Toulouse on many different levels. To benefit from one, if not the biggest club in Europe is fantastic.”

But it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to convince the panel. A recent report into Toronto Wolfpack questioned the commercial benefits Catalans had brought to Super League while Robert Elstone suggested the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic could harm their application.

“I think many people wait to see what we bring on the economical and financial side,” Sarrazain admitted.

“But we believe we have a lot to bring, first of all, we have two business networks which are set to be the most influential in Toulouse and this area. One which is chaired by Carlos Zalduendo, the former French international and French Federation chairman and which has 600 directors in VIPs and the Toulouse Olympie business club with 300 business companies.

“They are a big asset and wait only for one thing, to exchange with some English club sponsors. In addition to that, we are one of the most dynamic economic regions and I think both for our country and numerous departments, of course, one we know of is aerospace and many others.”

Then there is the prospect of a French derby in Super League. Catalans have, for years, wanted a domestic rival to compete with them in the top flight. Toulouse provides an opportunity to deliver that and in doing so, Sarrazain believes the benefits for the sport would be huge.

“I think that’s a key part of everything.

“To have such a derby with Catalans would really boost the attraction of Super League towards the fans, the media, the sponsors and of course it would have a big impact in France to develop the sport.

“We really believe it would also allow us to develop the French national team and in doing that, strengthen Europe and give the England national team a strong opponent that they need.

“Derbies are so important and you always need a big important derby to develop the sport. It’s a very important part of our application. First of all, the derby with the Catalans would allow us to develop the sport in France, then we’d have a bigger pool of young talent playing in the best competition in the Northern Hemisphere, then the French national team would be stronger and compete more with England and then, one day, beat England.

“That would push England to be stronger and attract more media, more everything. I think that’s the way when we speak about expansion, I think it’s what it can bring to the English game, not just to France.

“Also on the TV coverage, L’Equip TV, a free to air channel recently broadcast some games of the Catalans Dragons and offer media exposure which is very important. It’s a big opportunity for Super League to attract some sponsors with an international dimension who would be interested in negotiating on the French side.

“Once again, in the end, it will make the sport grow.”

Sarrazain also disputes the suggestion the Covid-19 pandemic should hamper their prospects of becoming Super League’s twelfth team.

“Catalans Dragons have found solutions and we will too.

“We have good relationships with the Catalans and I believe we could exchange and use their experience and feedback and also with Stade Toulouse who travels for the European Cup.

“There’s a solution and we’ll find them, especially as we’ve worked on the protocol of return to training which is very strict, so we’ll be ready for whatever comes to us.

“We’ve set this goal to join the Super League for a few years now and it has really driven us forward. Every year we wanted to get close to a Super League standard on and off the field and even if we’re not there yet we’ve improved year after year and we believe we’re not far now.”