France on the up
Rugby's uncordiale entente
December 4, 2013
The Top 14 - a place of stars but also political posturing © Getty Images
Mark McCafferty and Premier Rugby bet the house on French support in their battle for European control only to be hung out to dry last week as the Gallic counterparts committed to the Heineken Cup.
If Anglo-French relations have never been entirely solid, McCafferty and his supporters must have thought the shared objectives between Europe's two biggest rugby nations would ensure that on this occasion the alliance would hold.
Where the English made an error of judgement was not realising that the European Cup is just a tiny detail in a French tug of war between the league (LNR) and the federation (FFR).
While the national team has been in decline over the last few seasons the state of the club game in France is as healthy as ever with growing attendances and a plethora of global stars plying their trade.
That was backed up this week by the LNR's decision to call on offers for the rights to televise the Top 14 from 2014-15, apparently turning down long-time broadcaster Canal+, who reportedly offered €65 million a season for four years, more than double the €31 million they currently pay for exclusive rights.
The reason for the change is the arrival on the French market of Qatari-backed BeIN Sport - a subsidiary of Al-Jazeera - who have already shown several autumn international matches not featuring France, as well as taking a lot of Ligue 1 football matches from Canal+.
The sense is that the LNR believe they can earn €100 million per season, a figure which would dwarf PRL's £152 million four-year BT deal and only serve to increase the gap between the Top 14 and the rest of Europe.
It remains to be seen whether the Top 14 will move entirely to BeIN or whether there will be a split with Canal+, who have the trump card of a far higher number of subscribers, but the decision to open up for offers would indicate that BeIN have a serious interest in joining the domestic rugby market.
This will also have an impact on the broadcasting of the Top 14 abroad, an increasingly lucrative business which is currently part of the Canal+ package but looks set to be separately brokered by the LNR - something to which BT will pay close attention.
With that kind of money, as well as the traditional belief in France that the Top 14 remains the priority ahead of European glory, it is no surprise that the French were not willing to go to war for their English counterparts.
When it came to the Heineken Cup LNR boss and former Perpignan president Paul Goze got most of what he wanted: a competition reduced to 20 teams, the change in qualification system for the Celtic and Italian sides, a calendar switch to complete the European season before the start of the Top 14 play-offs and of course a more equitable split of the finances on a league basis.
As a result Goze and the LNR were prepared to fall into line with FFR president Pierre Camou, who allegedly also proposed €2 million per club to sweeten the return to the Heineken Cup.
The only problem that remains is the governance of the competition, which the French will look to resolve after another season under ERC rule, but where the BT contract restricts the English clubs, the LNR can afford to wait another season to see their final wishes granted.
Could France play their rugby away from the Stade de France? © Getty Images
In fact Goze was so unabashed about his intentions that he followed up the French announcement that they would be playing in the Heineken Cup by admitting that the new Rugby Champions Cup had only ever been a vehicle to get what he needed in Europe.
Meanwhile behind the scenes of the TV negotiations and European participation is an even more important issue, that of the new convention between the FFR and the LNR.
To reverse the struggles of the national team the FFR hope to follow the English model with the creation of an elite group of 30 players whose number of games would be restricted and who would have extra training camps with their international colleagues, with the clubs duly compensated.
The proposed new convention - the current agreement runs until December 31 - also looks set to introduce a requirement to increase the number of players developed in France (known as JIFF) in matchday squads.
The JIFF regulations are more complicated than simply dividing French-qualified and non-French qualified players - the Armitage brothers are considered as JIFF thanks to their spells at Nice before they moved to England, while former French second row Jérôme Thion would not have qualified having come to rugby from basketball too late.
While the proposed changes would appear to be vital to help the national team, they have unsurprisingly come under fire from certain club presidents, with outspoken Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal going as far as accusing the league of racism.
This convention will also have an impact on the proposed new national stadium, a bid to move away from the exorbitant rent prices of the Stade de France, a change that could have huge financial benefits for the FFR allowing them to compensate the clubs for better access to their players.
And the current convention crucially also gives the LNR the rights to negotiate their TV deal, hence the urgency in arranging the new TV contract before a new deal which might deprive of them of that right.
It's difficult to see whether the LNR or the FFR hold the greater sway in the current negotiations, the league certainly have the greater financial clout, and as a result, a greater control of the national team's players.
But the threat of the JIFF restrictions and the creation of the elite group mean the FFR have their cards to play, and in the Franco-French crossfire it looks like the first casualties have been the unsuspecting English.
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