in Toulouse, “the players, the staff and the club are transformed” before the big game, says Alexi Bales

Yes, on both sides. Toulouse did not prepare La Rochelle because they were preparing for another game. And that’s why we won the last meeting (with a streak of 8 wins, editor’s note), every time this match was scored. We know the strengths of both teams, if we don’t prepare for it like a big game, we can go through.

Toulousains gave off the feeling of never going through as they marked the match, to be precise…

Yes. That’s what I learned when I arrived at this club, which everyone knows. There is talent in every position, but when the big games come around you feel a very different atmosphere; not just in the team, in the whole club. That’s impressive. Players, staff, clubs were changed for the event. There is such a winning culture…

Is there any desire to show who is boss in this kind of big meeting?

Of course. I stopped my career, so it’s easier for me to say than the current player (smiles), because if not the opponent uses the article to make the sauce go up, but passes in these two clubs claiming the title, this match is very important. You put a punch in the back of your opponent’s head if you win. In recent years, for Toulouse, sometimes complicated, sometimes controversial, but in the end, psychologically, he has scored points by winning those games.

“To qualify at two clubs that claim to win this title, this game is very important”

The rivalry is real, but we feel less tension, aggressiveness between the two groups, but more respect, even friendship?

Yes that’s it. This is related to the evolution of generations. In Toulouse, there is an extraordinary generation, which we may not see again in thirty years. And in La Rochelle, Grégory Alldritts, Pierre Bourgarits – we will not mention all of them – got on well with the people of Toulouse. There is deep respect, it’s nice to see it. After that, on the pitch… But they are very good guys, whether they (Cyril) Baille, (Antoine) Dupont, (Romain) Ntamack, (Thomas) Ramos… That’s why it works as well. They have more talent than average, but they are bright people and on La Rochelle’s side, it’s the same. They know how to share something.

How do you see Toulouse’s season? Can we compare it to 2020-2021, when you double the Top 14 – Champions Cup?

It’s always very complicated to compare one season to another, because teams change, opponents too, especially because “20-21” was a Covid year, very special. Toulouse have been on the line five, the last six years, it’s a bit of a European rugby giant. I saw him win a lot of titles, still, but in money time, the last phase games are sometimes played in bits and pieces, that’s why he won’t win everything. But there’s so much talent, work that this team has impressed year after year.

But he seems to manage his rotation better than last season, for example, when it was his strength in the doubles year.

Yes, it’s true, we’ve been well gassed despite a few losses during the duplicates. When it’s running, you can’t really see the difference. In my opinion it was a bit less well managed by the staff last season – outside my case – there was less turnover, he trusts his group less than this year. There, everyone plays, even during important games when last season, they caught the eye of people who came out of Grand Slams and who have given so much, physically and mentally. In the semi-final against Castres, for me, we paid for a broken pot.

Alexi Bales, here in February 2021, has participated in three of Toulouse’s last eight wins against La Rochelle.

Xavier Léoty Archives

How do you also see the Rochelais season?

Stade Rochelais was much more expected. It completely changes his status, this is a great team. His European title made everyone want to knock him out. I saw it when I arrived in Toulouse, every weekend the opponents have only one wish, to beat Stade Toulousain. All matches are complicated, there is no more room for relaxation whereas before, the Rochelais could time their weak and strong like that. Now, the entire group must always be at 100% capacity. This season is a bit more complicated, they lost twice to Deflandre but a season is so long… For me, no worries, everything will be decided in money time but Toulouse and La Rochelle are two championship champions and in Europe, they will be in the first six . We have to be in good shape when it matters.

Those of you who saw his influence so closely, as a replacement for Antoine Dupont, does his absence change anything?

Need. It’s like asking Kilyan Mbappé on the French football team. They are very impactful players… Even if Antoine doesn’t cross the pitch he attracts so many people and defenders that it opens up even further. We saw him against Clermont, he was 10th, defenders all crowding around him and Sofiane Guitoune or Pierre-Louis Barassi taking further advantage… There are teams with and others without him. It’s normal, when I play, it’s normal that I’m not on the same level as him (smiles).

“Even if Antoine doesn’t cross the pitch he attracts so many people and defenders that open further up”

What do you think of the evolution of Rochelais Thomas Berjon, which should start on Saturday?

He is a boy who reaches high levels very quickly whereas when I arrived he was still teaching at Puilboreau. He is a hard worker, who has built himself through work, he has developed technically and physically. There, he was in a small transitional period, after meteoric development. He’s a smart kid, I’m sure he’ll climb the slopes and he’ll get ahead. When you make a European Cup final like he did, it’s because the potential is there. His room for improvement will be significant after this transitional phase, he is still young (24 years, editor’s note). The best Thomas Berjon will arrive in a few years or, I hope, in a few months.

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