European rugby now far from a level playing field for Irish provinces
Growing financial power of the French and English clubs posing a major challenge
Toulon Rugby owner Mourad Boudjellal celebrates his team’s Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Leinster at the Felix Mayol Stadium in Toulon. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images)
The essence is in part aspirational, a glossy, Panini sticker-album feel, to the playing roster at Toulon. Club president and multi-millionaire benefactor Mourad Boudjellal has trawled global rugby for premium collectibles in much the same manner that people snap up his comic books.
While many of the club’s European rivals, principally outside the French Top 14 Championship, including today’s Heineken Cup semi-final opponents, Munster, must operate within more modest means, signing on the dotted line for Toulon is a life-changing experience, primarily financially.
Toulon’s operating budget is €21.8 million. At a guesstimate it’s about three to five times that of Munster, the latter centrally funded and underwritten by the IRFU. That gap will increase for a variety of reasons next season.
The Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) has announced that the Top 14 salary cap will rise to €10 million, starting next season. It represents a €500,000 increase but there is a further tweak that allows a little more financial latitude. Academy and youth players will no longer be included in the salary cap unless they earn in excess of €50,000 per annum, a concession aimed at encouraging the development of indigenous talent.
This latest hike in the salary cap for Top 14 clubs comes on foot of an € 800,000 increase this season; that’s €1.3 million more spending power in a 24 month period. It won’t stop there. The LNR recently struck a deal with French television station, Canal+, negotiating an eye-watering €355 million, five-year – a jump from €31 million to €71 per annum – broadcasting rights agreement, starting next season.
Boudjellal wants the funds distributed on a pro-rata meritocracy basis that takes into consideration the clubs whose fixtures will be most sought-after in screening terms by the broadcasters rather than a 14-way split. He ventured: “the broadcasting rights have been increased, but now we need them to be distributed in a rational manner. Merit has a price. If these criteria are not honoured, I will oppose the screening of RCT’s matches at the Stade Mayol.”
He also opposes limiting the number of foreign players: “the French league will get more than €70 million per season due to the foreign players who have come to improve the level of competition here and enhance its appeal to the general public”.
There are other bugbears.
It’s not just domestically that Toulon can anticipate greater revenue returns. The newly-constituted European Rugby Champions Cup, which will replace the Heineken Cup next season, provides for a significantly increased financial return for not alone the French clubs but their English counterparts; the Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian brotherhood, must initially make do with their existing remuneration levels.