The blue bloods of Toulouse could barely be said to have muddied their cuffs when they entertained guests from Wales one golden afternoon in 1998.

The French aristocrats ran out 108-16 winners against Ebbw Vale in perfect late September conditions in south-west France which were ideal for the home players to run through their full repertoire of skills.

But here’s the thing: no two games are ever the same.

Fast-forward a couple of months and Toulouse rocked up in Blaenau Gwent on a bitterly cold November day. Autumn already seemed to be giving way to winter and any brass monkeys in the area might have considered donning fur coats.

This wasn’t just a different rugby environment from what Toulouse were used to. It was a different planet. Welcome to Eugene Cross Park.

There followed arguably the most amazing game in European Cup history, one which saw 33 penalties awarded against the French, three players yellow carded, one man sent off, and police and stewards jostled by certain Toulouse players as they left the field.

A touch-judge was also reportedly man-handled and a policeman’s helmet knocked off.

Oh, and a number of the French team’s players scuffled with Vale fans in the clubhouse afterwards, after the Welsh team had posted a 19-11 victory.

A lively day at the office, then, even by French standards.

We recall the most incredible rugby turnaround of them all:


Toulouse were irresistible in their first meeting with Vale that year.

One report from a French media outlet claimed certain visiting players had “quietly” smoked cigarettes as they left the team bus that day.

Whatever, the sun was beaming down and the firm pitch suited runners such as Emile Ntamack, Stephane Ougier and Christophe Deylaud. A difficult afternoon always looked likely for the Welsh, and so it proved.

Tries were run in from all angles. Michel Marfaing bagged four, while Ntamack, Pierre Bonduy and Philippe Lapoutge claimed a hat-trick apiece. Vale lined up beneath their posts 16 times, all their horrors coming true at once.

The scoreboard couldn’t accommodate three figures when Toulouse hit the hundred mark.

A steward was given responsibility for keeping a ‘1’ next to the two digits.

Jason Strange, who played fly-half that day, remembers: “It was vintage Toulouse.

“They were in the mood and conditions suited them. By contrast, we’d gone from a wet and muddy Ebbw Vale autumn to a brilliant day down there with the temperatures touching 34 degrees.

“But we knew we were better than that — much better.”


On the final whistle, Vale’s No. 8 Mark Jones announced to anyone who was listening: “We’ll all be back in Ebbw Vale in a couple of months — bring your snow boots.”

Toulouse might not have read too much into the comment.

But an Enigma codebreaker wasn’t needed to discern the meaning: it would be different at Eugene Cross Park.


Toulouse needed to win to make sure of a home tie against Ulster in the quarter-finals.

But they still opted to leave star man Ntamack on the bench.

Vale were hit by injuries, especially up front where Mark Jones, Kingsley Jones, Leighton Phillips and Chay Billen were off limits.

But they are a proud club with a tradition for producing hard and uncompromising forwards. Legend has it that when the late, great Clive Burgess went down injured during a game in the 1970s, a voice from the bank had shouted: “Is there a welder in the crowd?”

Emile Ntamack of Toulouse breaks through
Emile Ntamack of Toulouse breaks through

Their strength in depth was now being examined to the full, but Vale were quietly determined to make Toulouse battle.

The trouble was the French took things a bit too literally.


It didn’t take Toulouse too long to grow frustrated, their early class giving way to a pettiness and irritation as penalties stacked up against them.

Centre Romuald Paillat was yellow-carded after a flare-up and then prop Cyrille Vencheri was sent off for kicking on the stroke of half-time. Meantime, a mass fight had broken out with players from both sides piling in.

High-class displays from Strange at fly-half and David Llewellyn at scrum-half helped secure Vale control of the game and reward the efforts of forwards such as Nathan Budgett and Richie Collins, who were outstanding on the day. Strange never won a Wales cap but he had class to spare that afternoon as he controlled matters beautifully amid the mayhem.

As the game spiralled away from the French, they lost all semblance of self-discipline.

Violence continued to punctuate proceedings and on full time, international prop Franck Tournaire seemed to jostle a touch-judge.

“It all kicked off,” laughs Strange.

“They became increasingly frustrated and as they came off a few of them were having a go at the officials.

Cyrille Vancheri is sent off
Cyrille Vancheri is sent off

“It went downhill from here. The referee needed an escort off the field and I can remember them scuffling with my mate Sean O’Leary, who was in charge of security. Someone is supposed to have jostled a policeman as well.

“It then continued inside by the dressing room area. As I went in to shower and change, the last thing I saw was a policeman’s helmet flying around.

“Later, there were scuffles in the clubhouse.”

The visitors left without attending the post-game function.

The next day a newspaper reported: “Toulouse were reduced to a group of mad men.”

Ebbw Vale’s then director Ray Harris said: “This is something we are not used to at Ebbw Vale. It is totally unbelievable. Our security men did a brilliant job.”


Vale may not have ever played better, with Toulouse’s exploits overshadowing the Welsh team’s achievement of avenging a horrendous defeat.

“It was one of the most memorable games I played in,” Strange says.

“It was played in conditions that were completely different from what Toulouse were used to — cold, with lots of mud, a world away from the south of France.

“Our forwards were outstanding and so were backs like Jonathan Hawker and Gareth Williams, who had a lot of tackling to do because we were under the pump for long periods.

“It was a great side to play in that season.

“We had a full-back in Josh Taumalolo who may well have been one of the best No. 15s in the world at the time, while there were excellent forwards and we played as a team. I think 80 percent of us were local lads.

A fight breaks out
A fight breaks out

“It was just great we were able to beat Toulouse in front of our own supporters.

“What made it worse for them was they had to travel to Ulster for the quarter-final because of their loss against us.”


Toulouse were duly knocked out by Ulster.

European Rugby Cup officials took a surprisingly lenient view of misconduct charges brought against the club and their international prop Tournaire at a disciplinary hearing in Dublin.

While ERC’s disciplinary panel cautioned the inaugural champions and “severely warned” Tournaire, the nominal £2,600 costs order – together with reprimands all round – effectively allowed Toulouse and Tournaire to walk free, leaving Ebbw Vale disgusted.

“Toulouse have got away with it,” Harris said afterwards.

“I didn’t want to see Toulouse kicked out of the competition but I am disappointed and dumbfounded by the outcome.”

By contrast, the previous season Brive and Pontypridd had each received £30,000 fines — £15,000 suspended — for on-pitch violence, while Llanelli and Pau landed £20,000 fines — £10,000 suspended — after trouble when they clashed in south west France.

But Vale at least got their win over one of Europe’s great rugby institutions.

Nothing will ever wipe that away.

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