Insane calendar impeding French clubs
Ian Moriarty
December 9, 2009

So it begins once more. Just when we thought that France's Heineken Cup teams had turned a corner with their European form, a month of poor performances at domestic level threatens to consume them once again. It's now almost five years since a French club got their hands on top prize but given the excesses of the Top 14 fixture schedule, it's looking less and less likely that we'll see one on the podium in Paris in May.

Undoubtedly, plenty would disagree with that assertion. After all, it's been a great start for the French clubs in Europe's flagship competition. Toulouse, Stade Francais and Biarritz are all in control of their respective Pools and Perpignan and Clermont Auvergne are still in with a fighting chance of qualification for the quarters. Yet no team qualifies for the knock out stages in October and with the season already hitting the halfway point, France's Heineken challengers are quickly running out of steam.

Come the end of this month, French clubs will have clocked up twenty Top 14 and European matches under their belts. Compare that to the fifteen for Guinness Premiership clubs (plus two Anglo-Welsh Cup games) and fourteen for the Magners clubs. And while the Top 14 season began back on August 14, the three league games played during the autumn internationals last month has left a phalanx of walking wounded.

With fewer international call-ups, Castres, Toulon and Racing Metro have all had a November to remember, forcing their way into the top six of the Top 14 at the expense of Stade, Biarritz and Brive, all Heineken hopefuls. But the rot doesn't stop there. Toulouse have lost three of their last five matches and Guy Noves, who's clearly a worried man, believes the autumn internationals and the pressure put on his squad from call-ups is hampering his team's form.

Toulouse are not the only ones. All the big clubs have, despite their resources, been overstretched in a vain attempt to remain competitive in two competitions and provide players to the national side. Biarritz are in freefall following a superb start to the season and have lost four of their last five matches. The loss of the superb Imanol Harinordoquay to injury after the France - South Africa match has been a huge blow. Clermont Auvergne have endured a similar fall from grace recently, winning just one of their last six games.

Of course, every successful European side has had to put up with call-ups over the last month or so. That goes with the territory. But the sheer number of matches in the Top 14 combined with the extra injuries that crop up as a result is creating ever-larger hoops for the big clubs to jump through. Noves admitted last week that he believes the pull on players is getting worse every year. All of France's big clubs are known to be in favour of reducing the Top 14 to twelve clubs but that's where the politics start.

Take Albi for example. With wins against Perpignan and Biarritz under their belts, it's been a great few weeks for the basement boys. With a tiny budget and playing staff, the Top 14's smallest club resemble a goldfish swimming in a shark tank so the last few weeks have been their opportunity to strike while the others are weakened. In many respects, while it's heart-warming to see clubs like Albi punching above their weight, the reality is that their presence is now damaging French rugby from the top down.

Albi are fortunate to have some powerful allies in their corner. Pierre-Yves Revol, the current boss of the LNR, is against any reduction of clubs in the top tier. Revol, who was president of Castres before Serge Blanco stepped down from the LNR hotseat last year, believes that the 118 year-old French championship takes precedence over everything else, including the national team. He has so far refused however, to put forward a workable compromise for French rugby as a whole, instead stubbornly clinging on to his mandate like a shop steward.

With no proposal for reform on the table, the status quo is set to rumble on for the foreseeable future. That's a shame because the Heineken Cup without a full strength French contingent is a tainted competition. Just imagine if Perpignan could go to Limerick this weekend without five injured back-row forwards or if Guy Noves didn't have to rest players because of exhaustion. Some will say that injuries are part of the game but where exactly do we draw the line?


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