Toulouse’s long-standing ambition to become a Super League club has been hit by the opposition of local residents – that have put a stop on their new stadium development.
Their traditional home at Stade des Minimes, a local authority owned stadia as is common in France, was meant to be re-developed in to a top flight standard ground, and demolition work had commenced back in December 2017.
But objections from taxpayers over the cost of the project, increased road traffic, disruption on matchday and a lack of sufficient parking for supporters has resulted in the project being mothballed.
That has forced Toulouse to play their home games out of town at Blagnac RUFC, with their game against Toronto Wolfpack now due to be played at Stade Ernest Wallon, home of Toulouse rugby union.
The plan had been to raise the stadium capacity at Minimes to 10,000, to include the extention of two main stands, a shop, a gym and an administrative office for the club, at the cost of around €8m.
The renovation was already under way when the local residents committee took legal action against the council, causing work to be suspended last year, even after it had been agreed that the capacity of the ground after development would be reduced to around 4,500.
Toulouse were mentioned in the original set up of Super League in 1996, but were never chosen. They lost out to Catalans Dragons for a place in 2006, and then after three years in the Championship from 2009 to 2011, they failed to achieve the on-field criteria that would have enabled them to apply for a place in the top flight.
They missed out on The Qualifiers in 2017, but came the closest they’ve ever been to Super League last season, as they just missed out on a place in the Million Pound Game.
With French rugby league enjoying a boost following Catalans’ Challenge Cup win, the club remains determined to reach the top flight.
Whereas many French communities have suffered from economic decline over recent years, Toulouse is a growing and prosperous city. Between 2006 and 2015 the city’s population went up from under 440,000 to over 470,000 people. The aeronautical industry and the health and tech sectors attract workers from all over Europe. Young people from the South West of France flock to the city for educational and professional opportunities.
Toulouse Olympique play their part in the economic success of Toulouse; their business club, La Table Ovale, has more than 500 members and is considered to be the place to network in the city.
With a good local pool of talented players to develop and a strong business community behind the club, the only ingredient missing to confirm Toulouse’s status as a potential Super League club is a stadium to match their ambitions.
Blagnac RUFC are keen to explore the long-term possibility to hosting Toulouse, with local residents and businesses happy that rugby league activity is a positive boost to the town.
Club president Benoit Trey says they are actively working on a project to further improve facilities at the Stade Ernest Argeles, to enable it to become Toulouse’s long-term home.
The pitch copped for some criticism from Widnes coach Kieron Purtill following the Vikings’ win in France recently, and Blagnac and the local council are working on a plan to seek funding to enable a hybrid pitch to be laid.
There is already an outline plan for improved supporter and corporate hospitality facilities at Blagnac, in line with the rugby union club’s development as a centre for rugby excellence, while their ladies XV play in the French first division and provide players for the international side.
Blagnac’s stadium benefits from a large carpark and there are direct bus and tram services to central Toulouse and easy access to the Airport which is in Blagnac.
The city of Toulouse may well see the option of investing in ground improvements at Stade Ernest Argèles as a rapid and cost effective way of providing a permanent home for Toulouse Olympique.
The question remains over the suitability of Blagnac as a possible Super League venue, which may result in the use of Stade Ernest Wallon to be explored.
The 19,000-capacity stadium will host Toulouse’s game against Toronto Wolfpack in March, the first time that Olympique have played at the ground, though it has previously hosted Catalans Dragons and international matches.
It is understood that Blagnac did pass a Super League inspection ahead of possible promotion at the end of 2018, but the continuing changes and plans to improve standards in the top flight may impact on that.
One option could be to play bigger games at the Stade Ernest Wallon and play the majority of home games at Blagnac – but the biggest challenge for Toulouse remains getting out of the Championship.
The club was approached for comment, but would only say that: “Toulouse City Council is considering all the options to find the best solution for the Toulouse Olympique, including if promoted to Super League.”