European Rugby Champions Cup: Toulon target third title in a row

By Chris JonesBBC Radio 5 live
Toulon celebrate winning the 2014 Heineken Cup
European champions Toulon start their continental cup campaign at home to Scarlets on Sunday

European champions Toulon want to prove there is life after Jonny Wilkinson as they bid for an unprecedented third continental title in a row.

The Rouge et Noir beat Scarlets 28-18 on Sunday in their first game of the new European Rugby Champions Cup, which has replaced the Heineken Cup.

"It's definitely realistic; it's what we are paid for," the French side's captain Carl Hayman told BBC Radio 5 live.

"We're excited by the challenge."

Hayman has replaced Wilkinson as skipper following the English fly-half's retirement at the end of last season, in which he led Toulon to a French league and Heineken Cup double.

Although Wilkinson still works part-time at the club as a coach, Hayman says his retirement has left a void.

"He has left a big hole. Matt Giteau is a good replacement - he's been playing really well [at fly-half] - but we'll miss Jonny as a person and a leader," Hayman said.

"I don't think we will see another player like him for some time."

Wilkinson's goal-kicking duties have been given to Wales and Lions full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who made his long-awaited debut last weekend against Toulouse after a tough start to his time on the Cote D'Azur.

Leigh Halfpenny on his Toulon debut
Leigh Halfpenny made his Toulon debut in their 21-10 defeat by Toulouse

He also kicked 13 points for his side in Sunday's game.

"It's great to see Leigh back on the field after a long injury lay-off. He's going to be key for us and his goal-kicking is a massive part of that," Hayman said.

Halfpenny arrived in the south of France with a shoulder injury before picking up a groin problem, which led to the Toulon President Mourad Boudjellal questioning his future at the club.

But the Toulon head coach Bernard Laporte said the Welshman will only improve now he is back to fitness.

"He needs to play to have a rhythm of competition. He is a very good goal-kicker and we need him. He is like Jonny, he is very professional," the former France coach told BBC Radio 5 live.

"But we want to show we can win without Jonny."

The success of Toulon - and the growth of the Top 14 as a whole - is in stark contrast to the fortunes of the French national side, which has struggled in recent years.

The proliferation of foreigners into the league has been put forward as a reason by the current head coach Philippe Saint-Andre, but Laporte - who coached France between 1999 and 2007 - disagrees.

"It is not a problem," he said. "The problem is that the French coach doesn't have time with the players. The problem is the same as when I was the coach.

Toulon's new players 2014-15
PlayerCountryPrevious clubPosition
Leigh HalfpennyWalesCardiff BluesFull-back
Guilhem GuiradoFrancePerpignanHooker
James O'ConnorAustraliaLondon IrishFull-back/wing
Fabien BarcellaFranceBiarritzProp
Nicolas DurandFrancePerpignanScrum-half
Mamuka GorgodzeGeorgiaMontpellierFlanker
Gerhard VoslooSouth AfricaClermontFlanker
Romain TaofifenuaFrancePerpignanSecond row
Eric EscandeFranceMontpellierScrum-half

"In England and Wales they have time. The difference with the English system is that we don't have an agreement to free the player. It is a big problem. For me, they [the players] play too much and [suffer with] injury or not being in good form."

Another leading figure in French rugby, Clermont Auvergne sporting director Jean-Marc Lhermet, says shortening the domestic season is the only way to solve the national team's problems.

"In Clermont-Ferrand we have seven players from the French team and all those players play every weekend with big intensity, big games, and when November arrives they are a little bit tired," Lhermet told BBC Radio 5 live.

"It is difficult for Philippe to have a competitive team. He has no time for the players to prepare them, so it is a big challenge.

"There is only one solution: to change the French championship to maybe a Top 12. Less matches is the only solution for the national team."

Bernard Laporte was speaking on 5 live Rugby on Thursday. Former Bath and England prop David Flatman and Wales defence coach Shaun Edwards were among the guests. If you missed the show you can download the podcast here.

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