Toulouse is the nerve-centre of France’s aerospace industry and its Rugby League team is reaching for the stars under a new chairman with high-flying ambitions.
CITY businessman Olivier Dubois has taken control of Toulouse Olympique and immediately announced his intention to push for Category A status under IMG’s grading system and become “a real force” in Super League.
Toulouse have been given a 12.97 rating as one of the better Category B clubs under the current illustrative gradings, placing them in tenth position and in line for immediate Super League inclusion from 2025 onwards.
Dubois, aged 43, is the owner of Autobuy (an electronic sales platform for professional vehicles) and has been a major sponsor of Toulouse for three seasons. He is making it his mission to improve the club’s standing.
He said, “I am very satisfied with the IMG ranking but I am not surprised because the former president and staff did a good job in building this club and we knew we would be around that mark.
“But there is room for improvement in many areas and that is our long-term goal. Short-term is for next season to continue to be in those top twelve teams but our main aim is to become a Category A club.
“It’s not enough to have the ambition to be in the Super League, you want to be among the best Super League clubs, just like our friends from Catalans Dragons.
“We will constantly work to improve our ranking and this is happening right now. In the medium to long term, we want to become a real force in the Super League.”
Dubois believes the establishment of a central training facility for all players from the youngest juniors to first-team regulars is essential for the club to grow.
During a lengthy takeover procedure from previous club president Bernard Sarrazain, Dubois was already making plans for significant changes at the club.
He added, “There will be changes for next season but it is also important to build continuity. I am very happy with the administration, coaching, performance and medical staff.
“With Cédric Garcia as Sports Director and Sylvain Houles as head coach I have two people in my team who are great for Toulouse Olympique.
“It is clear that we need to strengthen the playing group. The mentality within this club is amazing, for us to go through the 2023 season with such a tight budget and small playing group is amazing.
“We started the year with only 19 players but this allowed us to rebuild the value of our club around young French players. We had to integrate several of our Academy players into the first team and we will announce several new professional contracts for young French players in the coming weeks.
“This is crucial for our future, we need more young French players in the ranks and in the professional team, Toulouse is an incredibly sporty city, as is the entire Occitanie region, and there are many options for young people.
“Rugby union is incredibly strong in the city but the two codes are not the same rugby and not the same spectator base at the moment. Toulouse is a large city of nearly half a million inhabitants and it is quite possible to have successful football, rugby union and Rugby League clubs.
“We are only 14,000 inhabitants from becoming the third largest city in France (after Paris and Marseille) and in the next two to three years we will overtake Lyon.
“If I didn’t think that League could succeed in Toulouse, I wouldn’t be here, we are a historic club with huge roots in the city and we plan to grow.”
The club’s former chief executive Cédric Garcia (who has switched to a director of sport role to accommodate Dubois as a hands-on executive chairman) told Rugby League World that his new boss had “a million ideas and lots of energy”.
He added, “We have been waiting for this news for some time, having Olivier on board is fantastic for this club, it has given everyone a boost of energy and positivity. This is the beginning of a new chapter.”
The Olympians have a lease until 2029 to use Stade Ernest Wallon as their home but hope to build their own stadium beyond that. The Wallon stadium belongs to the giants of French rugby union Stade Toulousain and TO are committed to establishing their own roots.
Garcia explained, “You can only really succeed commercially in your own stadium where you can generate other revenue streams, not only from games.
“Today there is a missing stadium of around 10,000 capacity in Toulouse. You have the football club for more than 30,000 people, Ernest Wallon can take 20,000 people and the fourth (soon to be third according to population forecasts) largest city in France needs something in between.
Garcia explained the new management structure of the club, adding, “Olivier is our executive chairman (or president as many say in France) and he invests money as a shareholder and is one of our main sponsors.
“His company, Autobuy, has been a major partner here for a few years and he is now in charge of TO as president, but it is a different model to many club president/owner situations in England.
“Around 60-70 per cent of our revenue comes from sponsors, not just one benefactor. The good side of it is that it offers stability, we have almost 300 sponsors so you can lose one but you can still bounce back.
“If you lose a single owner who invests millions every year, you have big problems. Our model has always been to expand our revenue base and not rely upon one person.
“Olivier is an important investor and shareholder and the leader of this club as executive chairman, but he is not the owner.
“We have many different shareholders and the main one is our ‘Association’ which is the non-profit group that has been the core of the club since its initial foundation.
“The owner of the ‘Toulouse Olympique’ company is the club itself, it is a little different in France than in England. When a club is founded on an amateur basis, it forms an association that remains in place even when the organisation becomes professional and establishes itself as a company.
“There are clubs in France that rely on single-owner benefactors but most of the others, including Stade Toulousain, have the same model as us.
“This gives us financial stability and security and will help us achieve our long-term goal of having our own stadium in the city.”
After ten years of control, former president Bernard Sarrazain said he was happy to see his successor take the reins of the club.
The 72-year-old owner of a city transport and logistics company said, “The time had come for me to resign, but what a trip during the last ten years of Elite 1 to the Super League.
“I am convinced that Olivier is the right man to move this club forward in its adventure.
“I will remain a member of the club and a passionate supporter, Toulouse Olympique is a big family and I will continue to protect and defend its values.”
Since the transition from Sarrazain to Dubois TO have announced two-year contract extensions for wingers Anthony Marion, Paul Marcon and Benjamin Laguerre; hooker Callum Gahan; second row or centre PJ Lima and prop Dimitri Biscarro plus a three-year extension for prop Joe Bretherton and an additional year for veteran captain Harrison Hansen. The first new recruits for the Olympians under their new President are 24-year-old Lebanon international prop James Roumanos and Cook Islands’ winger Paul Ulberg (28).
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 492 (January 2024)