Our countdown is nearing its climax and coming in at number three is the legendary French second row Fabien Pelous.
3. Fabien Pelous (Toulouse)
No matter how stylish or fluent a team is, every outfit that craves success needs an enforcer. Few players fitted this bill more than Toulouse second row Fabien Pelous. While Guy Noves has held the management reins for an unprecedented 20 years, Pelous was his on-field general and his time in the engine room corresponded with the most successful period in Toulouse’s history.
The French giants are the aristocrats of European rugby, and will go down as the most decorated team in Heineken Cup history (with 4 wins). While they are mainly associated with creative centres and swashbuckling speedsters out wide, the base provide by the forwards gave the backs their chance to showcase their talents. This base would have shook like jelly were it not for the continued excellence of their former French captain who pulled things together.
While the lock may have tasted Heineken Cup rugby for the first time with Dax as a fresh faced 22-year-old in 1996, Pelous is synonymous with French giants Toulouse, a side he represented 76 times in Europe’s premier club rugby competition, while also leading the Southern French giants onto the winner’s podium on two occasions, in 2003 and 2005. Pelous’ haul of European Cup medals could have been so much more impressive; he missed out on Toulouse’s first competition success in 1996 as he was with Dax and retired in 2009, a season before they went on to claim their fourth title. While he has also been on the losing side twice, in 2004 to Wasps and 2008 to Munster, guiding a team to four finals in six seasons is a remarkable feat.
Measuring 6′ 6″, and weighing in at 17 and a half stone, Pelous was far from a lumbering second row that offered nothing on the pitch except height in the line out. The fact that he seamlessly switched between the second and back rows all through his career, both at club and international level, are testament to this. With so many capable finishers across the back division the onus was never on Pelous to carry for huge yardage, yet when he did he did so effectively. When the moment called, the long legged lock was not found wanting, but in this case his lack of finishing experience cost him dearly. Yet by completing the hard work and making a scything break, he proved that when the need was there he had the potential to be an explosive carrier.
Seven tries in 81 Heineken Cup outings prove that while Pelous was a man of many things, prolific try scoring was not one. His strike rate in the blue of France was similarly low, crossing the whitewash on just eight occasions, but that did not stop him becoming the all-time French record cap holder in 2007 when he won his 118th and final cap (42nd as captain) before announcing his retirement after the 2007 World Cup. Ultimately of course, the second row general won’t be judged on his try count. He will be judged by his unrelenting desire to win and the number of trophies he guided his teams to during his career.
Just like other talismanic leaders like Martin Johnson and Paul O’Connell who have come before him in this list, the red mist sometimes descended on Pelous and he wasn’t shy in dishing out his own form of self-administered justice. While this piece of ill-advised play did his team no favours there was no questioning he was a man all his teammates would rather be with than without.
Like so many of his peers on this greatest Heineken Cup players list, Pelous had a striking longevity and delivered consistently every day he took to the field. The second row is one of the most physically demanding positions on the pitch and for the Frenchman to produce such high levels of performances right the way through his 13 year career marks him out as the best European lock of his generation.
When Pelous announced his retirement at the end of the 2009 season the outpouring of emotion that greeted him from the Toulouse fans summed up the esteem in which he was held more than any collection of words or highlight reels ever could. The Toulouse public know their rugby and their love is not won cheap.
Ozer McMahon, Pundit Arena.