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European giants Toulouse ready to add a fifth star to their chests

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One of the great maxims of French rugby is that when Toulouse go well so to do Les Bleus. This theory regained credence in the few years when Toulouse’s rejuvenation in turn prompted a long overdue revival by the national team.

But although Toulouse won their first title in seven years two seasons ago, akin to France not winning a Six Nations since 2010, the rouge et noir have not conquered Europe at club level since 2010 either.

No less than Leinster, the inaugural champions want to break new ground by claiming a fifth star.

“It’s written in their DNA,” explains Laurent Depret, the longtime French rugby journalist with RCM Radio.

“They won the first ever Heineken Cup in ‘95-96 after extra-time,” he adds in reference to the dramatic win over Cardiff in the Arms Park. “Yes, it is something massive for them. I would say that they led by example in making the other French clubs think of the Heineken Cup as something different, not more important than Top 14, but something different.”

“I’m sure that if the club president, Didier Lacroix, had to choose between the Top14 and the Heineken Cup, he would want the club to hold the Heineken Cup again.”

After conquering Europe again in 2003, ‘05 and ‘10, Toulouse won back-to-back French titles in 2011 and 2012, but then the club began to wane.

All four of their European Cups, along with nine French Championship titles, were won during the unparalleled 22-year reign of Guy Novès as head coach, when Toulouse hunted for gems as well as developing talent from within.

Toulouse captain Emile Ntamack (centre) and teammates celebrate their victory in the inaugural 1995-96 European Cup. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Muller/Getty/AFP
Toulouse captain Emile Ntamack (centre) and teammates celebrate their victory in the inaugural 1995-96 European Cup. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Muller/Getty/AFP

But the core of a great team grew old together, players like Fabien Pelous, Census Johnston, Thierry Dusautoir, Cedric Heymans and Vincent Clerc.

In 2013-14, after reaching the semi-finals of the French Championship for 20 seasons in succession, Toulouse lost a quarter-final at home to Racing, and that 21-16 defeat would be repeated at the same stage two seasons later.

Meanwhile, Toulouse also became relative soft touches in Europe after a quarter-final loss to Edinburgh in the 2011-12 season. Over the next five seasons there were three pool exits along with two quarter-final beatings by Munster in Thomond Park.

In that same season Toulouse limped to a 12th place finish in the Top 14, albeit 15 points clear of the relegation zone. Hence, for the only time in the 25-year history of the competition, the club did not even participate in the Champions Cup in 2017-18 and, instead, suffered the indignity of being banished to the Challenge Cup.

Blessing

It may have been a blessing. After that difficult first season when Ugo Mola succeeded Novès as director or rugby, Lacroix (newly elected as club president in May 2017) set about reviving the club. Lacroix is Toulouse born and bred, who was initially rejected by the club as being too small before eventually following his older brother into the academy at 13, and effectively has been with Stade ever since.

Necessity being the mother of invention, there was a renewed emphasis on the Toulouse culture of bringing through their own players, or signing young players, and playing their own brand of rugby, with the Challenge Cup serving as a useful breeding ground.

They are brothers in arms

Lacroix, a brilliant backrower who won six Championships with Toulouse in a golden era between 1994 and 2001 and played in that inaugural 1996 European final in Cardiff, ensured all the coaching staff comprised of former players as he created a four-year project to rediscover Stade Toulousain’s ethos and greatness.

With Mola as director of rugby, Régis Sonnes, who played alongside Lacroix in the backrow on the Toulouse championship-winning side of 1994, ‘95 and ‘97, came aboard as the assistant/forwards coach at the start of the 2018-19 season after, famously, spending two years coaching Bandon RFC and Bandon Grammar School, where he left an indelible impression. Clement Poitrenaud came in as backs coach and Jerome Cazalbou (another teammate from the 90s) as team manager.

“They are brothers in arms,” as Depret puts it.

If they’re good enough, they’re old enough has traditionally been the Toulouse way and the quintet of French internationals returning from Six Nations duty are representative of this, namely Antoine Dupont (24), Romain Ntamack (21), Cyril Baille (27), Julien Marchand (25) and Dorian Aldegheri (27).

Marchand, a product of their academy, a powerful carrier with his low centre of gravity and strong as an ox over the ball, was made the club captain at 23 and is as much the poster boy of Stade Toulousain as either Dupont or Ntamack.

In the event, so dramatic was the effect that a four-year project yielded the bouclier de brennus in year one. Toulouse finished the season 15 points clear of Clermont, who they then beat 24-18 in the final to win an unequalled 20th title and first since 2012.

The World Cup hit Toulouse hard, with Racing and Clermont also suffering, and they were eighth when the 2019-20 Top 14 was abandoned last year.

Sonne also departed, deciding to take up the role of Director of Rugby at Agen, who have lost all 20 games in the Top 14 this season and are doomed to be relegated to the ProD2. But as his stint in Bandon demonstrates, Sonne always marched to his own beat.

“You have to take in the personality of Régis Sonnes, who is an incredible character,” says Depret, citing another example.

Regis Sonnes pictured ahead of a European clash with Bath in 2019. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Regis Sonnes pictured ahead of a European clash with Bath in 2019. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

After the 1995 French Championship final in Parc des Prince, when Toulouse retained their title, Sonne stood on the table in the dressingroom and asked for quietness. He was expected to be taken to the 1995 World Cup as part of the French team and his club teammates were expecting a song.

Instead he announced that he was going to take a year’s sabbatical so as to go surfing in Mexico, which he duly did before retuning when the side completed four titles in a row.

Sonne was replaced last year by Jean Bouilhou, a four-time winner of the bouclier and three-time Heineken Cup winner. A highly accomplished all-round blindside flanker, Trevor Brennan, for one, reckons Bouilhou should have won about 50 caps more than the two he did earn.

Bouilhou had been coaching with Montauban in the ProD2 and the change seems to have been fairly seamless. Despite last week’s humbling at home by Montpellier, the first time Toulouse have ever lost to them at home, this was only their second loss in 15 games and they remain atop the Top 14.

“That was a bad loss but their internationals were all in the stand,” says Arnaud David, a long-serving rugby writer with l’equipe and now sud oust.

“However they also lost Sofiane Guitoune in that game, who is a very important, creative player for them. He’s out for the rest of the season. That is a big blow.”

As to how Toulouse compare to the season before last, David says: “They are not on fire like they were two years ago but on their day they are still very, very good and some players have matured.

“Europe is a big challenge for players like Dupont and Ntamack. They have proved they are very good players with France but with their club it’s time for them to rise to another level, a level they lacked when they played in Europe against Exeter,” says David in reference to their 28-18 defeat in last September’s semi-final in Sandy Park.

“They didn’t control the match and they were not as efficient with Toulouse as they have been with France.”

Regrets

Furthermore, following Les Bleus’ anti-climactic defeat by Scotland last Friday week, Mola only welcomed back his French quintet this Monday.

Dupont admits the last game “leaves a bitter taste” and for all the praise heaped upon him, he does not think he had an especially good tournament.

“It’s a bit like the team. I don’t have the impression of having performed badly, but neither do I feel that I have given the maximum of potential. There are always regrets when I am not satisfied with the results.”

Turning their attention to Munster at short notice would appear challenging.

“I had my Sunday off,” confirmed Dupont. “We knew that when we came back, there would be very quick deadlines. We didn’t have much time to breathe, but we were prepared for it. We spend more and more time on recovery.”

Besides which, there is the lure of this win-or-bust tie against Munster.

“There is a great past between the two clubs. We all have memories of meetings against Munster, not necessarily happy for Toulouse, with the endless phases that the Irish can produce. It is a historical face to face. It’s just a shame there isn’t public fervor. It adds an extra soul.”

Cedric Heymans tries to stop Doug Howlett during Toulouse’s 2008 Champions Cup final defeat to Munster. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Cedric Heymans tries to stop Doug Howlett during Toulouse’s 2008 Champions Cup final defeat to Munster. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Dupont also likens it to France meeting Ireland.

“The game of Munster is comparable to the style of play of Ireland. We also saw it with the France team. Their characteristics are very strong and quite far from our philosophy and which prove to be formidably effective. We have the impression that they are not doing anything exceptional but they are doing everything right. We get used to them, we know them but it still works.”

The French win in Dublin was hailed as a major psychological breakthrough and fillip for Les Bleus – one they apparently celebrated late into the night – and coupled with that Toulouse win in Belfast, should ensure they are less spooked by the prospect of playing in Thomond Park when beaten out the gate in the quarter-final stage seven and four years ago.

“We haven’t talked too much about it but perhaps unconsciously, it can give more confidence in the preparation of the match and also on the scenario, if we are led to the score, to be able to come back. It’s pretty rare to win in Ireland and we’ve done it twice this year.”

A third would bring that fifth star closer into view.

Head-to-head results

Toulouse have played more matches against the Irish teams in the Heineken Champions Cup than any other team. In all, Toulouse have played 36 games against the four provinces.

Toulouse v Munster
1996-97: Toulouse 60 Munster 19.
1999-00: (semi-finals) Toulouse 25 Munster 31.
2002-03: (semi-finals) Toulouse 13 Munster 12.
2007-08: (final) Munster 16 Toulouse 13.
2013-14: (quarter-finals) Munster 47 Toulouse 23.
2016-17: (quarter-final) Munster 41 Toulouse 16.
Total: Played 6. Won 2, Drawn 0, Lost 4.

Toulouse v Leinster
1997-98: Leinster 25 Toulouse 34, Toulouse 38 Leinster 19.
2001-02: Leinster 40 Toulouse 10, Toulouse 43 Leinster 7.
2005-06: (quarter-finals) Toulouse 35 Leinster 41.
2007-08: Toulouse 33 Leinster 6, Leinster 20 Toulouse 13.
2009-10: (semi-finals) Toulouse 26 Leinster 16.
2010-11: (semi-finals) Leinster 32 Toulouse 23.
2018-19: Toulouse 28 Leinster 27, Leinster 29 Toulouse 13. (semi-finals) Leinster 30 Toulouse 12.
Total: Pl 12, Won 6, Drawn 0, Lost 6.

Toulouse v Ulster
1998-99: Toulouse 39 Ulster 3, Ulster 29 Toulouse 24, (quarter-finals) Ulster 15
Toulouse 13.
2000-01: Toulouse 35 Ulster 35, Ulster 25 Toulouse 29.
2006-07: Ulster 30 Toulouse 3, Toulouse 28 Ulster 13.
2015-16: Ulster 38 Toulouse 0, Toulouse 23 Ulster 25.
2020-21: (quarter-finals) Toulouse 36 Ulster 8.
Total: Pl 10, Won 4, Drawn 1, Lost 5

Toulouse v Connacht
2011-12: Connacht 10 Toulouse 36, Toulouse 24 Connacht 3.
2013-14: Toulouse 14 Connacht 16, Connacht 9 Toulouse 37.
2016-17: Connacht 23 Toulouse 21, Toulouse 19 Connacht 10.
2020-21: Toulouse 32 Connacht 17, Connacht 7 Toulouse 21.
Total: Pl 8, Won 6, Drawn 0, Lost 2.

Overall Total: Played 36, Won 18, Drawn 1, Lost 17.

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All you need to know on getting the Moderna vaccine as a booster

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People due to receive their Covid-19 booster vaccine in coming weeks will primarily be offered the Moderna dose at HSE vaccination centres.

The HSE is reported to have large supplies of Moderna due to expire next month, so that will be the main vaccine administered over coming weeks to the over-60s, over-50s, healthcare workers, and younger people in vulnerable groups – though it will be restricted to people over 30.

Anecdotally there are indications some people may be reluctant to take the Moderna vaccine. This may be due to Irish stocks about to expire shortly and/or confusion about its efficacy. This follows the company’s chief executive Stéphane Bancel warning last week the Moderna jab may not be as effective against Omicron as it had been with the Delta variant.

The HSE has confirmed recipients will have no choice on what vaccine they are given.

What type of coronavirus vaccine is the Moderna jab?

It is a new kind of synthetic “mRNA vaccine” – the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is from the same stable. They provide excellent protection against severe illness and hospitalisation – and have played a critical role in reducing Covid-19 deaths since being approved. A downside, however, is that the Moderna version must be kept at -20 degrees.

Should people be worried about receiving a soon to be out-of-date vaccine?





Total doses distributed to Ireland Total doses administered in Ireland


10,093,390


8,193,802

In short no, as they retain the ability to boost antibody production within currently approved time spans – though inevitably potency wanes over time. The Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Janssen (Johnson&Johnson) vaccines were put on the market with emergency use authorisation of up to six months.

This compares with a shelf life of two to three years for most vaccines and other medicines. This is an “inevitable consequence of getting the vaccines out of the door as quickly as possible”, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Gino Martini told the journal BMJ.

Months later, these “emergency” expiry dates remain in force for these vaccines. For approved Covid-19 vaccines, the initial shelf lives were based on data available at the time of submission for regulatory approval.

The long-term shelf life has not been extended for any of the vaccines. A shelf life extension would require supporting evidence from relevant stability studies. Vaccine manufacturers are monitoring batches of vaccines with the aim of providing a longer shelf life; probably the usual two years.

What about the Omicron threat?

While Moderna said existing vaccines including its mRNA version will probably be less effective against the Omicron variant, most experts believe they will continue to provide significant protection against severe disease and hospitalisation. It should be stressed, however, definitive indication has yet to emerge. That will be a matter of weeks, if not days.

Moderna has confirmed it is developing an Omicron-specific booster though manufacturing the new vaccine would take time. Tens of millions of doses could be available in the first quarter of 2022, but scale-up would not happen until the second quarter – provided it is shown such boosters are required.

What is the latest indication on the benefits of mixing vaccines?

Evidence supporting a mixing of vaccine doses has hardened over recent months. A study this week shows combining a first dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine with a second dose of either the Moderna or the Novavax jabs results in far higher levels of neutralising antibodies and T-cells compared with two doses of the AstraZeneca jab.

This finding also has important implications for lower-income countries that have not yet completed their primary vaccination campaigns as it suggests you do not need access to mRNA vaccines – and therefore ultra-cold storage facilities – to trigger an extremely potent Covid-19 vaccine response.

The study also bolsters confidence that using the Moderna vaccine as a booster dose in people who have previously received the AstraZeneca jab should result in high levels of neutralising antibodies and T-cells.

It follows separate data published last week suggesting the Pfizer and Moderna booster jabs can dramatically strengthen the body’s immune defences.

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Woman (90s) dies following single-vehicle crash in Co Clare

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A woman in her 90s has died following a single-vehicle crash in Co Clare in the early hours of Tuesday.

The incident occurred at about 12.30am at Annagh, Miltown Malbay. The woman, who was the driver and sole occupant of the car involved in the crash, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Her body was removed to Limerick University Hospital, where gardaí say a postmortem will take place at a later date.

The road has been closed to facilitate an exam by Garda forensic collision investigators, and local diversions are in place.

Gardaí have appealed for witnesses – particularly road users who may have camera footage – to come forward. Anyone with information can contact Kilrush Garda station (065 908 0550), the confidential line (1800 666 111), or any Garda station.

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What areas will be worst hit and what is closing?

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Just how serious is Storm Barra?

Storm Barra is set to hit Ireland fully on Tuesday morning, with Met Éireann warning that the severe weather could pose a threat to life.

The storm will rapidly deepen over the west and south coast on Monday evening, bringing very strong winds and heavy rain on Tuesday and into Wednesday.

Met Éireann have also warned that there is a risk of snow, as well as coastal flooding, due to the combination of high waves, storm surges and high tide.

Southwesterly winds, which will later veer northwesterly, will reach mean speeds in excess of 80 km/h.

Severe or damaging gusts may reach speeds in excess of 130km/h.

Power and travel may be disrupted across the country.

What are the areas most affected?

There is a status red wind warning in place for counties Cork, Kerry and Clare. Cork and Kerry’s warning starts at 6am on Tuesday and lasts until 9pm that evening.

Clare will be under a red alert from 4pm on Tuesday until 1am on Wednesday.

Limerick, Waterford, Galway, Mayo, Wexford, Dublin, Louth, Wicklow and Meath are also under an orange wind warning.

However, Met Éireann have advised that there is a strong possibility that the status orange alerts will escalate to status red.

A red marine storm warning will also be in effect for Irish coastal waters from north Mayo to Cork city.

The rest of the country will be under a status yellow wind and rain warning, with Met Éireann saying that heavy rain may result in surface flooding.

There is also a risk of snow over the entire country, and flooding in coastal areas.

Is it okay to go out in the storm?

People in the affected areas are being advised to avoid all unnecessary journeys, meaning you should stay indoors if possible.

People on motorbikes, cyclists, and pedestrians should take extra care if they have to travel, and they should avoid coastal areas.

Motorists are also advised to be more wary while driving, and to look out for fallen trees and debris on the road.

The charity Alone urged older people to take extra care and called on members of the public to “check in with their older neighbours and relatives and assist them if they need to travel to the local shop, post office or medical appointments during the bad weather”.

What has been cancelled or closed?

The Department of Education, which oversees primary and secondary schools, has advised schools in red and orange alert counties to close.

The Department of Higher Education, which governs colleges, universities and further education institutes, has issued a similar statement, saying education institutions in red and orange alert counties should close also.

Creches, early learning and school-age childcare services in the 12 counties should not open tomorrow, according to the Department of Children. Services that close will receive Force Majeure funding, according to the department.

Bus Éireann services in Co Cork and Co Kerry will be suspended for the full day. Services in Co Clare will be suspended from 4pm on Tuesday until 1am on Wednesday. This cancellation will also apply to all routes operating into or out of the status red warning area including Expressway Route 51.

Some hospital appointments have been cancelled, and Covid-19 testing and vaccination centres in status red and orange counties have also been forced to close due to the storm. A list of the affected health services can be found here. The National Ambulance Service will prioritise emergency calls during this weather event but is urging the general public to think carefully before calling 999/112.

The Courts Service has also confirmed that all sittings in red alert counties have been cancelled.

The Department of Local Government said a large number of national parks and reserves including Killarney National Park and Muckross House would close on Tuesday and Wednesday. Powerscourt Estate in Co Wicklow will close from 8am until 1pm on Tuesday.

Aldi has also said its stores in Cork and Kerry will be closed all day Tuesday, and their Clare stores will shut at 3pm on Tuesday.

Lidl and Tesco stores in Cork and Kerry will also be closed all day.

How long is the storm expected to last?

According to Met Éireann, Storm Barra will gradually clear Ireland later on Wednesday and winds will slowly ease, with a more settled few days to end the week.

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