Change for the better?
May 22, 2012
Biarritz took the Amlin Challenge Cup on Friday but it was a poor advert for French rugby © Getty Images
Less is more - but try telling that to the owners of some of France's biggest clubs who seem set to transform the European rugby landscape.
As cup finals go, last Friday's Amlin Challenge Cup Final wasn't exactly the most inspirational marketing for what is purported to be the biggest and bestest professional league in world rugby. The hand-wringing from both punters and pundits that followed Biarritz' narrow victory over Toulon at the weekend was completely understandable, especially in light of the Heineken Final that followed it on Saturday. It was, if truth be told, an awful advertisement for French and European rugby.
The age-old rivalries between Top 14 sides have always been one of the great pulling factors of the French Championship but taken out of context those intense encounters are often lost on neutrals. Last Friday night at the Stoop, we had two committed teams who threw everything at each other yet virtually everybody bar Biarritz supporters will want the game erased from the memory permanently.
But was Friday night's game a damning indictment of where French rugby is, as claimed by some commentators, or was it a one-off to be set aside and forgotten? There is certainly enough circumstantial evidence to believe the standard of rugby in the Top 14 is struggling this season thanks to the extended World Cup season. Yet nothing has ever been black and white in French rugby and despite this year's slog there are plenty who believe there should be more games, not less.
For some time now, there have been murmurs of discontent bubbling away across the French rugby landscape: too few Top 14 games, not enough TV money, too many European games, not enough control, not enough voting rights... Now comes the news that French (and English) clubs are giving serious thought towards refusing to re-sign the Heineken Cup accords in 2014, for which they have to give two years notice. The reason, they say, is that they should have more clubs in the world's best club tournament, to the effective detriment of sides in Scotland and Italy.
And there's more. Not content with potentially destroying the balance of a great European competition, there are those like Racing Metro owner Jacky Lorenzetti who sound as though they want to destroy their own club competition too. Lorenzetti recently told Midi Olympique that a return to sixteen teams was absolutely vital.
"There are too few games," said the multimillionaire. "The players whose teams don't make the final phases have maybe three months of holidays. That's nuts. A day at work for a rugby player is three, maybe four hours of training, four days a week. You've got to work more. They're not lazy but they're not Stakhanovistes (hard workers) either who are physically prepared to endure such a rhythm."
While a return to sixteen clubs in the next year or so is regarded as unlikely by those in the know, Lorenzetti's thoughts on the matter are shared by several other club presidents, broadcaster Canal+ and by Ligue National de Rugby (LNR) Pierre-Yves Revol. Money is the key and if those club presidents can't raise the extra cash by playing more games, other cash cows must be looked at, which is where the Heineken Cup comes in.
Will the likes of Jonny Wilkinson be forced to play more matches? © Getty Images
It seems like only yesterday that the French clubs were banging their shoes on ERC's boardroom table looking for a bigger slice of the European pie. Back in 2007 it was voting and share rights that captured Gallic imaginations but this time around it seems more serious. At the heart of the matter is the proposal from the French clubs and their English colleagues to limit the number of teams from the RaboDirect Pro12 to eight, thereby increasing their own. Taken in isolation, the proposal has its merits as it would undoubtedly make the Celtic league a more competitive and viable construct. However I'm pretty sure French and English clubs didn't have the health of Celtic and Italian teams in mind when they dreamed up the idea and therein lies the rub. More places for French sides equals more competition money and eventually, more control.
That would be all well and good if we thought European rugby would be well looked after, but given the recent utterances of powerful men such as Monsieur Lorenzetti of Racing Metro and Mourad Boudjellal of Toulon, how likely is that going to be? Would it mean more matches like last Friday night? Would it mean having more big name players like Matt Giteau and Carl Hayman (playing his 34th game of the season) playing well within themselves? How long before the French public stop watching?
Rugby's calendar is in a mess - of that we are certain. Here in the northern hemisphere though we are faced with the prospect of unions and clubs having to work together so that days like Saturday can continue to be enjoyed. And that, sadly, is a depressing thought.
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