French rugby heading for trouble
February 18, 2009
French Rugby Federation president Pierre Camou has predicted trouble for the national side unless changes are made © Getty Images
"It's necessary to restructure French rugby. If it doesn't happen, we're running straight into a wall."
Those weren't the words of a frustrated French supporter after the Scotland match last weekend but of French Rugby Federation (FFR) President Pierre Camou. And it wasn't so much the poor performance against the Scots that led him to this conclusion but the growing feeling here in France that the current structure is leading all and sundry down one big cul de sac.
One wonders how Camou greeted the news that Riki Flutey, James Haskell and Tom Palmer are all off to play rugby in his jurisdiction next season. The England players will join a league already packed with big overseas names but what was once seen as a source of great pride is now beginning to look like French rugby's Achilles heel. Bringing quality players into the country has never been a problem but the sheer number of overseas players is now starting to have a huge impact.
That the new FFR chief has to do something is clear; French rugby has been dominated by a handful of powerful club owners for too long and while coach Marc Lièvremont can be apportioned a healthy slice of the blame for the current woes of the national team, it's clear that the system in place is failing French rugby right across the board.
Lièvremont has depth in a few areas like back row and the back three but his options have become alarmingly limited in some key positions. The coach has recalled Sylvain Marconnet in place of Nicolas Mas for the game against Wales despite the fact that the veteran prop has been a shadow of himself since he returned from a long term injury.
Elsewhere, there have been calls for the return of the 118-times capped Fabien Pelous such is the dearth of options in the engine room. France do have alternatives in Loic Jacquet and Yoann Maestri who have shown great potential but would you throw them in an already inexperienced team against Wales?
Simply put, the Top 14 in its current form is holding back the development of young players. The retirements of key players like Pelous, Betsen and De Villiers after the Rugby World Cup made life difficult for Lièvremont who has had little success searching for successors amid the 200-odd overseas players now plying their wares in the Top 14.
Ricky Flutey's new team Brive, has 27 overseas players currently on its books. This is the same club that won the 1997 European Cup made up almost entirely of French players. How many young French props and locks have been lost for the glory of staying out of Pro D2 in recent years?
Funnily enough, Toulouse is one of the few clubs that have managed to combine a mix of local and foreign talent. The French Champions have had a policy in recent years where a third of the side should be local, another third from around France and the final third from overseas. But that has had consequences for smaller French clubs as Toulouse seek to build a squad strong enough to contest the Top 14 and Heineken Cup in the same season. Bourgoin's brilliant young centre Yann David is off to La Ville Rose in June, as is Louis Picamoles and possibly the aforementioned Maestri.
The result will be an even more lopsided club championship and another headache for Camou. We've already arrived at the stage where Toulouse seconds can beat a mid-table club like Montauban or Montpellier away from home. So what does that say about the state of the Top 14?
Strip away the sheen, the exotic names and places and you are left with arguably the most boring competition in world rugby. Sure, you can find spectacle from time to time, and a few sides that love playing good rugby but what of the rest of it? The French Championship has had three different winners since 1993. Castres were the last team to break the hegemony of Biarritz, Toulouse and Stade Francais. And with the exception of Clermont Auvergne, no one else looks like they ever will.
The sad reality is that if nothing is done, the gap between the big boys and the rest is going to increase. The global recession has added an extra dimension to the issue with many of the smaller clubs facing uncertain times ahead. Travel 80+ kilometres from Toulouse in any direction and you'll find a French club in trouble. Montpellier are shaving €2 million from this year's €12 million budget. Montauban, Dax and Bayonne are all following suit with cuts of 15-20% each. Both Auch and Albi have been in and out of the headlines over the last year or so because of financial problems.
Meanwhile, 36,000 Toulousains will pack into the Stadium de Toulouse this weekend to see their side take on Clermont and many will wonder what all the fuss is about.
Pierre Camou has a difficult job on his hands if he is to save French rugby from itself. He will have to convince the LNR (Ligue National de Rugby) that they must condense the league season and introduce a salary cap to take the pressure off the smaller clubs. He must curb the proliferation of overseas players and reward clubs who place emphasis on the fostering of young talent.
Finally, he must put the national side back at the top of the pyramid. For French rugby to find its way out of this hole, the stakeholders must learn that club and country are not mutually exclusive terms.