The big bucks and big names in France’s Top 14 have led to the league becoming the powerhouse within rugby, a situation that threatens to worsen and create a monopoly, writes Ewan MacKenna.
On 15 October, 2005, Max Guazzini saw the realisation of a dream many had deemed to be impossible. An eccentric entrepreneur who’d struck it rich in the private radio game, 13 years earlier he’d taken over a lower-league Parisian side by the name of Stade Francais with the promise of returning top-level rugby to the French capital. This was the high point of him keeping his word as he brought a match against Toulouse to the Stade de France, moved 79,502 tickets, and smashed the national attendance record for a regular-season match in any sport. “You had to be a little crazy but if we don’t take risks in life…” he recalled. “Everything is always possible. I had tears in my eyes that day.”
Within French rugby there had always been money, right back to the 1920s when the game was secretly a semi-pro affair of wages and transfer fees – a situation that saw the nation booted from the Five Nations in 1931. As long ago as the 1980s there was an on-field professionalism and off-field commercialism brought about largely by Toulouse. And, thanks to Guazzini’s vision, there was suddenly glamour. Many didn’t see it then, but French rugby had all the ingredients and, a decade on from that Stade de France showdown, a behemoth is taking over and terrifying those elsewhere in Europe.
“For the French, the club comes before the country, they are very parochial and proud of the local,” says former Irish hooker Bernard Jackman, who coaches Grenoble in the Top 14. “It’s why even in division three and four, in villages you’ll have a local businessman bankrolling a club for millions. But the French are hugely patriotic people who’ll say they’ve the best beaches, the best food, the best culture. Now they’ve the best league, the best players, and are very proud of that, it’s like a validation of their general attitude. So they don’t care if others are saying it’s bad for the game and they can’t compete with the money. As far as the French are concerned it’s a dog-eat-dog business.”
Or pit bull-eat-pug. Last Sunday, as Leinster huffed and puffed but blew themselves out against Toulon, it assured the European champions would, for the third year running, be French. However it’s not the statistic, but the means behind it that is bothering so many. Already with private backers that clubs elsewhere cannot match, the French league recently signed a four-season TV deal worth €74m per term. With the direction of other major sports having already been decided by such a form of finance, now rugby has its own major chasm. For context, the ongoing Premiership deal with BT is worth €53m a year and, while undisclosed, the Pro 12 deal with Sky and its regional partners is thought to be closer to €14m.
“The frustrating part is everyone has seen football go through this,” notes Simon Hicks, Second Captains producer and rugby journalist. “But rugby acted as if powerless which makes it pathetic really. What’s different with rugby though, you can have a guy make money from comic books and come in and win European titles, it’s that small scale. On top of that, take Toulon, they were a second division outfit, no real pedigree, and all it takes is a few Kiwis and South Africans and they go from that to dominating the game. But in a way this has the potential to be an even bigger problem than in football. Rugby needs to realise it’s not as robust and people will get bored quickly if the same sides are constantly dominating.”
But while they’ve started to in terms of match results, the French have been dominating in terms of financial results for some time. While the central nature of Irish contracts and provincial crossover means there are no exact figures, and while the English salary cap is €7.6m next season with the allowance of two marquee players, it sits in the shadow of the €10m in the Top 14 excluding those on under €60,000 per year. Meanwhile with the IRFU severely limiting overseas players for the benefit of the national team, France right now allows 16 foreign players in a 36-man squad and next year will pay a €300,000 bonus to any club that averages 14 French players in their match-day squad. Such figures have seen the Top 14 hoover up a much higher level of talent and it’s going to get better, with next season’s signings already led by Dan Carter and his €1.8-a-season deal with Ma’a Nonu and Quade Cooper following close behind.
But while it may seem a juggernaut, there is a bend in the road, warns Richard Escot who has covered rugby for the past 30 years for L’Equipe. “A lot of clubs are on the edge, I must stress this. Clermont, Toulon, they can afford it but the others are spending to keep pace, spending money they don’t have. In terms of the national team, France have not been playing well, they’ve been looking for a scapegoat and the league suits. In football Real, Atletico, Barcelona, they don’t have just Spanish players and how did this effect Spain? So this is not the issue, the real issue is economics and the finances of a lot of clubs. The DNCG [Direction Nationale de Controle de Gestion – French rugby’s financial watchdog] have gone in and looked at books and they’ve set off some alarm bells.”
If that should come as some consolation to those counting coppers in Ireland, we’ve one other advantage, as explained by a high-ranking source within a Top 14 club. He says the Jonny Sexton experiment will help the provinces as the out-half was deemed a failure, as emotionally high-maintenance and as proof that Irish players simply aren’t worth it. For instance a French manager can ring the agent of a southern hemisphere player, be told the salary wanted is €300,000, fax through a contract for said amount, the deal is done and the player adapts quickly to rugby and to life. With an Irish player, the same fax will lead to discussions between province, player, IRFU and other parties until it falls apart and two month’s work is for nothing.
“We’ve been burnt too many times,” says the source. “There’s also a misconception Irish players are badly paid. Sure, double their money and they’d come but double it and it’s not worth it for us because top Irish players are very well looked after between international bonuses and all that. Plus they are bringing in third parties to help fund bigger wages and beat the system in their own way.”
Ultimately however the system rugby chose when going professional was capitalism and for some there is no way around that. “It’s not a problem, it’s just a natural progression and there’s an inevitability,” argues former Leinster, Ulster and Scotland coach Matt Williams. “I’ve been telling people for many, many years this is what’s happening behind the scenes, and the general public might only be aware of it now. But the Top 14 is experiencing what the Premier League did. For the clubs it’s an arm’s race, all about short-term gain and they can afford that.”
So where does it end up, you ask?
“There are a couple of unknowns here. Firstly, the French federation are fully aware of the problem for the national side. The problem is the clubs are autonomous and aren’t beholding to the federation for money. France could try and suggest something like three foreigners per team, but that’s unlikely to happen because the clubs will take them to the European courts and it’ll fall down. And unless something like that succeeded, the Top 14 will grow exponentially and all the top players will get sucked in.
“And remember,” Williams concludes, “they aren’t badly paid but rugby players are underpaid for what their bodies go through. They need to be properly reimbursed for the damage. So ultimately it’s a question of where the money is and the French are on top of that game and already ahead of the rest.”
Sunday Business Post
26 April, 2015