Toulon's rise has been built on a South African foundation and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, writes RYAN VREDE.
In 2008, I sat in Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal's office and listened as he reeled off the names of the players he would most like to bring to the club. Jerry Collins was the only non-South Africans he named in a list of seven.
He then showed me a pre-contract Bakkies Botha had signed with his then second division club.
'We're very happy Bakkies has agreed to come. He is the best in the world in his position and as a South African he has the physical and mental gifts we look for,' Boudjellal said.
Botha, it transpired, couldn't force his way out of his Bulls contract and had to wait until 2011 before he could trade Pretoria for the club perched deliciously close to the Mediterranean coastline. Victor Matfield had helped sell Botha on the merits of the move, despite him choosing to return home after a short stint. Matfield's appetite for Super Rugby hadn't diminished and the promise of involvement with the Springboks made his decision to come home easier. But Matfield, whom I'd spent two days interviewing, said he would readily recommend the move to any player looking for a new challenge, explaining that the lifestyle, remuneration and team culture were top class.
To underline Toulon's love affair with South Africans, there were a clutch of them, albeit of far lesser profile than Matfield, at the club before he arrived, and, if Boudjellal's interest in the team's cause doesn't wane (and with it their primary source of income cut off), this will continue to be the case in the club's future.
Already Boudjellal has secured the services of flanker Gerhard Vosloo, who, even at 35 years old, is among the best in his position in the league. Only an impossibly lucrative counter-offer from Castres kept Rory Kockott from being a Toulon player in the 2014-15 season. My understanding is that a number of young Springboks have turned down Toulon's approaches. For now.
Boudjellal's taste for South Africans extends to certain coaches as well. He offered current Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer the opportunity to take the reigns in 2008 and has enquired about his interest in the post subsequently. Reports from France last year indicated that he had made an audacious play for Jake White as well.
Five South Africans started in their Top 14 final triumph over Castres on Saturday with a further two on the bench, with another, Joe van Niekerk, ruled out through injury. The same number of South Africans started in last week's European Cup final win, up from the three in 2013 final triumph. They weren't passive passengers in that success, each contributing either observably or away from the spotlight in those wins. Danie Rossouw, in winning the French league title, has completed a personal haul of winning everything he possibly could in his professional career.
Toulon have rewarded these South Africans well for their efforts and in turn they have contributed significantly to the club's success. Brand Toulon has been as strong and appealing as it ever has, and their South African contingent have played no small part in that. Add to this their unseen contribution to furthering Toulon's cause by the mentorship they provide to the club's young players and it brings a degree of perspective to their extravagant salaries. Through their exceptional performances they have, undoubtedly, paved the way for other South Africans to pursue a career at Toulon and indeed other European clubs.
There was much to celebrate from a South African perspective in Super Rugby this past weekend. But spare a thought for a collection of South Africans thousands of kilometres away who've hoisted the flag highly over the last fortnight.
Photo: Boris Horvat/AFP Photo