French rugby is dominated by clubs from the South-West. But Provence's Rugby Club Toulonnais is one brilliant exception. Its stadium, the Stade Mayol, is a legend in its own right and Toulon's supporters are passionate.
The club's red and black livery and its striking lily of the valley logo can be spotted all over town, from people wearing the usual fleeces, sweatshirts and other apparel to the interior decor of bars, restaurants and hotels. There even seems to be a higher than average number of red and black cars on Toulon's roads!
The only other rugby club of any note in the region, the Pays d'Aix Rugby Club, competes at the second level, the Pro D2. But the Rugby Club Toulonnais (RCT for short) is, literally, in another league. It plays at France's highest level of competitive rugby, the Top 14, and is currently one of the leading clubs in France, if not the world.
This is partly due to a recent policy of buying in top international players. But the long-term success and popularity of the RCT are also due to something else: the generous and dedicated contributions of two, very different local working-class boys made good: Mourad Boudjellal and Félix Mayol.
THE RUGBY CLUB TOULONNAIS
The RCT was established in 1908 and steadily rose over the next decades, despite losing in the national championship finals no fewer than five times. But its fortunes later waned and by the mid-2000s the club was at a low ebb and deep in debt.
It had been just relegated, twice, from the first division, when in 2006 Boudjellal, took over the company along with his associate, a chef named Stéphane Lelièvre (whose gastronomic restaurant, Les Pins Penchés, is one of the leading addresses in Toulon).
The son of an Algerian immigrant from a very poor family, Boudjellal, who became President of the RCT in 2006, was a self-made businessman. A massive fan of bandes desinnées (graphic novels), he had made his fortune publishing these.
Now he threw himself with equal enthusiasm into turning the club around - and personally funded the acquisition of some major players.
The signing of Tana Umaga (the captain of New Zealand's All Blacks) was Boudjellal's first big coup - and persuading him to come to Toulon was no small achievement, given that the RCT was still then in the second division.
Umaga was followed by many international stars, including the Australian captain George Musarurwa Gregan, Argentina's Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, England's Jonny Wilkinson and very many more.
Outside the Stade Mayol, a trail of plaques set in the ground, pictured, commemorates some of Toulon's greatest players.
By 2008-2009 the RCT was back in the Top 14 and continues to ride high. The club took the European Rugby Champions Cup (formerly the Heineken Cup) three years in succession, in 2013, 2014 and 2015, and also won the French League Championship in 2014.
The RCT's other, equally unlikely benefactor was Mayol (1872-1941), a humble pastrycook turned music hall singer. This enormously popular entertainer rose to fame in Paris, though he was born and spent his final years in Toulon.
A high-camp performer whose trademarks were his outsize quiff and lily of the valley buttonhole, Mayol was probably homosexual and never married. But, if he had no children, he was extremely generous to his friends, colleagues and native city and was legendary for hosting lavish dinners.
According to legend, Mayol, pictured, became keen on rugby after his hat was knocked off by a rugby ball. Realising that Toulon lacked a sports stadium, he purchased a plot of land for that purpose just after the First World War, giving up the valuable rights to some of his songs to cover the costs.
The Stade Mayol was inaugurated in 1920 and still bears his name, while the singer's good-luck lily of the valley buttonhole remains the emblem of the RCT in his memory.
Unusually, the Mayol Stadium is located right in the heart of the city, right opposite Toulon's ferry and cruise ship terminals and a short walk from the Old Town and market. You can't miss it: a large statue of a rugby ball, pictured below, sits outside.
You can't take tours of the stadium. But you can get a good look at it from the outside (though of course the best time to visit is during the electric atmosphere of match nights).
The Stade Mayol has been recently modernised, with the addition of two giant screens and new red and black seating, among other improvements.
With a seating capacity of around 15,400, it has become rather small for a club of Toulon's current stature and popularity. The club still plays home games here, but tickets can be hard to come by.
Most are reserved for local subscribers, though you can try your chances on the booking area of the RCT website.
High-profile matches tend to be played at the much larger Stade Vélodrome in Marseille. A medium-term project has now begun to enlarge the Stade Mayol's seating, so that it will eventually accommodate 18,000 fans.
The improvements will also add a lift / elevator and more toilets, bars and other facilities. The stadium will remain open for matches during these works, which should be completed by summer 2017.
The Stade Mayol has four stands, or tribunes, all named after previous players in the team. The Tribunes Bonnus and Lanfontan run along the long sides and are covered; at the ends behind the posts are the Tribunes Delangre and Finale, which are open to the elements.
It's also possible to watch the RCT squad in training (check the club's website for the current diary). This happens at the Stade Ange Siccardi (sometimes called the Stade Berg), at 53, rue Melpomène 83100 Toulon. It's about 5 km / 3 miles north-east of the Stade Mayol (exit three off the A57 motorway).
Where: Stade Mayol, avenue de la République, 83000 Toulon. Tel: (+33) 4 94 41 44 55. Click here to book a hotel near Toulon's Stade Mayol
The Parking Mayol is a large multi-storey car-park with 3,000 places right next to the stadium. Click here for our full guide to how to get around Toulon by various modes of transport.
With two rugby posts outside and its red and black interior, there's no mistaking the RCT Café as the club's official brasserie.
It's on the place Besagne right next to the stadium, has an outdoor terrace and giant screens for following the game, serves decent hot food and stays open till late on match nights. Next door, inside the adjacent shopping mall, a shop sells RCT memorabilia.
There will also be plenty of food trucks parked near the stadium for a quick snack and, if you want something more substantial, the many waterfront restaurants a little further along the avenue de la République are a short walk away.
THE COUPO SANTO AND PILOU-PILOU
Among the various ritual chants at RCT matches, two stand out. A long hymn composed by Frédéric Mistral, a Nobel Prize winning poet who wrote in the provençal language, the Coupo Santo is performed by a specialist group, Occi-Cant (it does not figure at every match).
The more populist Pilou-Pilou is the Toulon Rugby Club's thundering war cry, a Maori-style haka. It was invented in the 1940s, but did not become really popular until the club was relegated to the second division in 2000.
The Pilou-Pilou was intended to rally morale - with some success, evidently. It's now the club's official anthem, chanted from the stands and often led by celebrities such as, in this clip, the French film actor Charles Berling.
And, just so that you can join in, here are the words of the Pilou-Pilou (English translation below - where needed!)
Ah! Nous les terribles guerriers du Pilou-Pilou
Qui descendons de la montagne vers la mer
Avec nos femmes échevelées allaitant nos enfants
A l'ombre des grands cocotiers blancs
Nous les terribles guerriers poussons notre terrible cri de guerre
J'ai dit NOTRE TERRIBLE CRI DE GUERRE!
Parce que TOULON
Parce que TOULON
Parce que TOULON
ROUGE ET NOIR!»
Ah! We fearsome warriors of the Pilou-Pilou
Who come down from the mountains to the sea
With our wild-haired women suckling our children
In the shade of the great white coconut trees
We fearsome warriors shout our fearsome war cry
I said OUR FEARSOME WAR CRY!
RED AND BLACK!