PARIS, FRANCE – Another French transfer window and period of clubs from the Top14 Pillaging Rugby Talent.What. A. Surprise. Good news though! It wasn’t all Toulon’s fault this time. In fact the financial juggernauts from the south of France were actually remarkably quiet this time around, only signing two (yes, TWO!) world-class players in Martin Castrogiovanni and Bryan Habana. For Toulon, this means they can now ONLY field two world-class front rows and frankly, the less said about how on earth they are going to scrimp for back-line players, the better.
At least Toulon can argue that they have built up their side over the last few years, shedding talent in order to bring in more. After all, their first purchases were not exactly long-term (or wise for that matter), George Gregan and Matt Henjak. Gregan was there for a year and Henjak? Well, Henjak has not got the greatest reputation. Nevertheless, by any standards having three world-class fly-halves is insanity!
Now, after years of trying to compete with their Southern rivals financially, the Racing Metro leadership have lost their patience. Not content with signing two-thirds of a new front row (Mujati and Tongahuia, to compete with their ALREADY all international front-row), they also felt it was necessary to sign a fly-half to replace their FOUR other fly halves! Jonathan Sexton is good, there is no doubt, but no one would claim he is a genius (not yet anyway), so of course the appeal of signing him and playing him in front of Juan Martin Hernandez must have been huge! (Oh yes and let us not forget Olly Barkley, who they signed less than six months ago!). And they also got some random Springbok lock called Juandre Kruger and the best blindside flanker in Europe, some dude called Dan Lydiate (WHO?!).
The aim of these signings is to finally catapult them into the big time, they came close when they re-entered the Top 14 with a signing spree including Chabal and Nallet, but then fell from grace as they realized that you actually have to build a squad to win trophies (if nothing else Toulon got that right!).
But the damage to European rugby is being felt all over, (judging by their performance against the Italians even the French may be feeling the effects). There is no doubt that the individual players the French are producing are exceptional, after all they have to navigate past the great and the good of modern rugby in order to secure their places in the starting XV. But the lack of game time with their fellow compatriots in tried and tested combinations is hurting them on the pitch, so it would seem. Compare the French side to the current England side who base their current run of form mostly on three teams, Saracens, Leicester and Harlequins, and one begins to see the difference. Within the French team, very few players in the squad play on the same side, and they certainly do not play in the same combinations, this means added training time has to be spent on acquiring these combinations.
Now, this is not to say the French teams are not strong at domestic level, but psychologically one has to wonder how difficult it is at international level to have such a mish mash of players flung together a week before a Test match. Somehow I get the feeling Phillipe Saint Andre knows what it feels to be a Lions coach.
The Top 14 flourishes domestically, three teams in the last eight of this year’s Heineken Cup (and Toulouse only out due to a minor miracle), but at what cost? The French salary cap is almost double that of the English salary cap (7.4 million pounds to 4.5 million in England). Look at Leicester and imagine what they could build with another 3 million quid in the bank. But is it truly worth it to stunt your national team’s growth for yet one more superstar? Surely there comes a point where there are only so many times you can bench the top players in the world? What should be more worrying for French clubs is the fact that in the very near future, players may well refuse to go overseas in order to guarantee themselves playing time at home, rather than running the roulette game that surely must be the Toulon selection panel on a Wednesday night… ‘Eyyy, Bernard what do you sink of Matty replacing Jonny, you know ‘ee missed like one penalty last game and zat is juzt not acceptable!’
I am in no way saying rugby players should be paid less for what they do. On the contrary, I believe footballers (soccer you heathens!) and rugby players should have their wages switched around! Rugby players quite literally go through car crashes every game, but something must be done to level the playing field at club level (which paradoxically may help France at international level).
The National Rugby League (NRL) in Australia has a salary cap for all teams, players and coaches. and wage structures must fit under that cap every year. This means your star player could have a back-ended contract meaning he earns double in his third year than he did in his first. But more important in this case are the punishments for breaching the salary cap. The Melbourne Storm two years ago had their trophy cabinet all but set on fire, for being over the cap. Teams are occasionally subject to complete guttings after a season, but guess what? Australia are the most dominant rugby league side in the world by a distance (despite the Kiwis being world champions), and their league is the most fun rugby based league in the world to watch (yes you heard me correctly, watch it then complain!).
Ultimately at some point the French spending will hit a ceiling, one of their owners will go bankrupt and annihilate his team in the process. If it comes down to it, I think the vast majority of people would choose international success over domestic bliss for their club.
To make matters worse, the French teams can’t seem to win the Heineken Cup! And get beaten by sides (a side in truth) that have built their programs over the years on the backs of their own country’s international talent (Leinster and Leicester anyone?). Honestly someone in the French setup surely has to see the light, a large percentage of people would love to see the French team finally do well, countless world class players have come through their ranks none of whom have won a World Cup, and the French side now has a justifiable reputation as a flaky and temperamental team. They may well win the Six Nations this year, but as long as they are being dispatched by Italy (who are good but not THAT good) they will continue to be considered unreliable.
Bon chance et bon courage mes petits grenouilles.