Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont, the 2021 World Player of the Year, hit out at the inclusion of South African teams in the new-look Champions Cup on Thursday, saying it was “no longer the European Cup”.
Toulouse have been the standout team in the competition since it was set up to find the best team in Europe in 1995-96.
They won that first tournament, beating Cardiff at the old Arms Park, and they can now claim five titles, more than anyone else, and two losing finals.
But that will be the last continental title for the foreseeable future because the competition has changed this season with the inclusion of South African franchises, following their integration into the United Rugby Championship last year.
“For purists, it’s a bit difficult to grasp,” said Dupont at Thursday’s press conference ahead of Toulouse’s opener against Munster at the formidable Thomond Park on Sunday.
Cape Town-based Stormers, the Durban side Sharks and Bulls from Pretoria will all take their place in this year’s line-up. Teams from Johannesburg and Bloemfontein will play in the second tier Challenge Cup.
“Our whole generation has known the legendary European Cup,” said Dupont.
“It’s a new competition now. It’s no longer the European Cup.
“We have to approach it like that and try to see the positive by telling ourselves that we will play new teams. But it’s a bit hard to understand”.
That edge of disappointment has not dimmed Toulouse’s desire for more silverware on the greatest club stage available.
“We feel that there is an excitement, a particular flavour,” said Dupont. “Everyone wants to raise their level and the intensity of their game to be able to compete.”
‘Paid the price’
Another quirk within the Champions Cup format is that although the 24 teams are split into two pools of 12, they will, in fact, only play two other teams, home and away, in the early stages.
Toulouse, who are runaway leaders of the French Top 14, have been matched with two-time European champions Munster as well as Sale, who are currently second in the English Premiership.
“With the formula with only three teams, we cannot make any mistakes. You have to win as many matches as possible to give yourself more chance of a home draw in the later stages.
“We know how important that is since we paid the price for it last year.”
Toulouse, who won the title in 2021, won just one of their pool matches last year which meant away trips in successive weekends to Dublin, where they beat Munster in the quarter-final before losing to Leinster in the semis.
Unlike that quarter-final, which was shifted to accommodate a series of Ed Sheeran concerts, Sunday’s game will be back in the hothouse of Limerick – Toulouse’s first trip there since a 40-16 hammering in 2017.
“The last time Toulouse travelled to a full Thomond Park, it didn’t go very well. We shipped 40 points,” said Dupont with admirable sang froid.
“We know the value that the 16th man can have there and given the history that we have with them in previous European Cups, they will be ready to welcome us.”
For Dupont it is a bonus even to be playing in the match at all after he was handed a four-week suspension for a red card in France’s narrow win over South Africa last month that would have ruled him out.
The suspension, however, was reduced on appeal, clearing the way for him to play.
“It’s never a good to go through that,” he said. “I had never had a red card and I hope I won’t see another one.”
Less fortunate are Toulouse backs Pierre-Louis Barassi and Arthur Retiere who are going through concussion protocol and will miss the match.
Argentina full-back Juan Cruz Mallia will also be absent while Sofiane Guitoune is also doubtful, leaving Toulouse short of options in the centre.
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