MAINTENANCE. Rugby à XIII: “We arrive very close to the goal” savors Carlos Zalduendo, figure of Toulouse Olympique
Carlos Zalduendo, 69, remains an essential character of the thirteen in Toulouse. The former international (25 caps) wore the colors of the TO (1969-1980), before being coach for a time and then president from 1996, to then become president of the French Federation (2012-2016) . While Toulouse Olympique is on the way to climb into the Super League, it was he who, in 2003, had the project to join the English competition, aware that this candidacy was inevitable to allow his club to grow and its discipline. to exist within an overloaded sporting landscape. Eighteen years after opening the Super League site, the TO is two steps away from its Holy Grail. The first to climb is this Saturday: beat Batley in the semi-final at Ernest-Wallon. Who better than Carlos Zalduendo to evoke this (very) long quest for a club, now recovered by Bernard Sarrazain, who above all cannot imagine failing so close to the goal.
You were one of the instigators of the TO’s first candidacy to join the Super League in 2003. What motivated this choice?
It should be remembered that at the time, we were in the Spacer’s Toulouse (1) project set up by Christian Mercier at the head of the Extand group. So we had to have a solid sporting project and we had put forward the idea of joining the Super League. We absolutely had to switch the media to professional sport, without that, you don’t attract the sponsors, the spectators and you end up winning major nations. I felt that we had to take up the torch left by PSG XIII who had stopped after two years in the Super League (1995 to 1997, Editor’s note).
Was it essential to give visibility to rugby union?
Of course ! We were in a period when the XV had gone pro since 1995 and we saw its evolution. We had to take the professionalism wagon as quickly as possible and in particular, that of the Super League, especially since PSG had given way. So I played my connections in England, I knocked on the door of Leeds, one of the great English clubs, that of the RFL. My past as a player helped me, I was listened to even if the TO was not taken and that in the end, it was the Catalan Dragons who joined the Super League.
Eighteen years have passed between this first candidacy in 2003 and today, when Toulouse is very close to acceding to the Super League. It’s huge !
Yes, but everything goes quickly too. There was an episode where we reposted on file with the RFL. There, we were taken in Championship with a status of semi-pros (in 2006, Editor’s note). Then the French Federation asked us to return to the French championship, on the pretext of promoting the French championship (in 2011). I admit that I took that as a betrayal. And I emptied of my blood when I learned from the English that it was the president of the FFR who no longer wanted us in the English competitions. It could have broken us. Fortunately, the club faced, the Oval Table played a fundamental role at this time because the partners stayed. And I did not give up the project and I am presented in 2012 to the federal elections with the ambition to have two French clubs in the Super League and a competitive French team.
And in 2016, the TO returned to English competitions, but this time in League One, the 3rd level. How do you explain that the Catalan Dragons did not have the same treatment?
Because they have benefited from the Super League franchise on record. From the moment the English accepted a second French club, this time it was necessary to win on the field. So we had no choice but to play in League One. But I have always had confidence in the success of this project, whether under my chairmanship or that of Bernard Sarrazain since 2012. And here, we are now very close to the goal.
On the feeling that if the English Federation (RFL) wants your presence in the Super League, it is less the case of the clubs, you confirm?
Yes and no. The RFL is divided because it wants to have a second French club in the Super League because it brings something else. But on the other hand, she also manages her clubs and that makes her a minus at the highest level. On the other hand, the big Super League clubs are in favor of the arrival of Toulouse because we have shown that we are a serious club, which holds the road and which has new facilities with our installation in Ernest-Wallon. It’s concrete. On the other hand, the clubs at the bottom of the table want their share of the pie, that’s normal. It’s a bit as if the Top 14 succeeded in the Top 12, at the bottom it would bitch. Well, except that in our case, it’s a foreign club that comes to shake up the game.
Two French clubs in the Super League, is it necessarily a more competitive French team as we hear?
Yes, I am convinced of it. Even if there are more foreigners in the clubs, it raises the level. We must attract young people, make them dream, so it requires a strong French team and successful professional clubs. One club cannot absorb all of the training.
During these eighteen years since you applied for the Super League, the TO has evolved, structured, modernized. When you return, do you see how far you have come and how successful you are, Bernard Sarrazain?
I realize that there are still the same constraints between yesterday and today. You have to build a budget, a team, balance the budget. To last, you have to be healthy, to be sustainable, you have to make choices that were also at the administrative level before even thinking about the athlete. There was an important step with the creation of the approved training center. It is an essential tool for the future because the high level without training does not exist. All these developments have brought us positive players but also a view of the English on our club. Lots of young people came to the TO through the training center. It is a successful bet.
And what about the “Oval Table” of which you are also the creator and its president today. Without it, no Super League?
To get there, that’s for sure. After, I do not know. It is a structure to support the club whether there are results or not. Its existence is decisive because we have won the loyalty of the partners. As we were not in the media to get feedback, it is through meetings and exchanges that the partners bonded. I admit that it is an unexpected success. I thought we would be around 40 at the start. We quickly found ourselves at 150. And there, we have 600 members!
Well, when you see the course of the TO this season, unbeaten in 14 games, all played away from home, won with more than 50 points on average, frankly, it is difficult to see how Toulouse could succeed in both last steps, especially at home.
Yes but to have played in my career, let me tell you that the matches, you have to play them. So, it seems to be the year of the TO, there are two games to go, the players and the coach are fully into the project. We expect that but there is always the uncertainty of sport. We think we deserve it, that we have never had the team so much to achieve it, but we have to play the games. I still want to stress the conditions in which the players have evolved this season. You have to realize what they did, always play away, go back and forth during the day in each match. I find that remarkable because personally I can’t imagine what it’s like to never play at home. So they have done the hard part and will earn the right to play at home the last two games. We will show them that we are behind them.
If ever the TO reaches the Super League on imagine your release …
I’m not in the habit of anticipating but it will certainly be a relaxation. I remember the national title obtained in 2000 as president. Everyone was on the starting line, you get people to join your project but afterwards, the competition is so random, it’s so complicated to get there, that once at the goal, yes, it’s a relaxation . And in this case, yes, it will be a slack.