Toulouse scrum-half Antoine Dupont, the 2021 World Player of the Year, on Thursday criticized the inclusion of South African sides in the new European Cup, saying it “wasn’t the European Cup anymore”.
Toulouse have been the best 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 can now claim five titles, more than anyone else, and two final losses.
But that will be the last continental title for the foreseeable future as 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,” Dupont said at Thursday’s press conference ahead of Toulouse’s opener against Munster on Sunday at the formidable Thomond Park.
The Cape Town Stormers, Durban Sharks and Pretoria Bulls will all take their place in this year’s line-up. The teams from Johannesburg and Bloemfontein will play in the second tier Challenge Cup.
“Our whole generation has known the legendary European Cup,” said Dupont.
“Now it’s a new competition. It is no longer the Champions Cup.
“We have to approach it like this and try to see the positive by telling ourselves that we will play with new teams. But it’s a bit difficult to understand”.
That hint of disappointment hasn’t dimmed Toulouse’s desire for more trophies on the biggest club stage available.
“We feel there’s an excitement, a particular flavor,” Dupont said. “Everyone wants to raise their level and the intensity of their game to be able to compete.”
‘paid the price’
Another quirk within the European Cup format is that, although the 24 teams are split into two groups of 12, they will actually only face two other teams, home and away, in the early stages.
Toulouse, the runaway leaders of the French Top 14, were partnered by two-time European champions Munster and Sale, currently runners-up in the English Premiership.
“With the formula with only three teams we can’t go wrong. You need to win as many matches as possible to give yourself more chances to draw at home in the later stages.
“We know how important that is as we paid the price last year.”
Toulouse, who won the title in 2021, won just one of their group games last year, which meant away games at the following weekends in Dublin, where they beat Munster in the quarter-finals before losing in semi-final against Leinster.
Unlike that quarter-final, which was moved to host a series of Ed Sheeran concerts, Sunday’s match will return to the Limerick conservatory – Toulouse’s first trip there since a 40-16 loss in 2017.
“The last time Toulouse visited a full Thomond Park, it didn’t go very well. We shipped 40 stitches,” Dupont said with admirable composure.
We know the value that the 16th man can have there and given the history we have with them in previous European cups, they will be ready to welcome us ”.
It’s a bonus for Dupont to also be playing the match 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.
However, the suspension was reduced on appeal, paving the way for him to play.
“It’s never good to go through this,” he said. “I’ve never had a red card before and I hope I don’t see another one.”
Less fortunate are Toulouse full-backs Pierre-Louis Barassi and Arthur Retiere who are going through concussion protocol and will miss the match.
Argentine full-back Juan Cruz Mallia will also be absent, while Sofiane Guitoune is a doubt, leaving Toulouse short on options in the centre.
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