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)

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)

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 08:00

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.

Meritocracy basis
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.

There’ll be plenty of gravy in terms of television and sponsorship into which the French and English will dip liberally. The genuine fear, with reasonable substance from the constituents of the RaboDirect Pro12 league, is that their best players will be cherry-picked – recent evidence suggests Welsh rugby is particularly vulnerable – and also that they will be unable to compete for marquee Southern Hemisphere names.

The Aviva Premiership clubs in England have also voted to increase their salary cap by £500,000 (€607,502) from £4.26 million (€5,175,817) to £4.76 million (€5,783,995). There is also a provision for an additional £240,000 (€291,618) towards academy credits, making a grand total of £5 million (€6,074,903).

The English clubs may designate that one player remains outside the salary cap, an example of which would be George North’s lucrative contract that enticed him to move from the Scarlets to the Northampton Saints. The Welsh rugby franchises operated under a salary cap this season of £3.5 million (€4,252,438) that did not include payment to academy players.

What’s indisputable in financial terms about tomorrow’s European semi-final at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille is that Munster must make less go further. There is no handicap co-efficient to dilute Toulon’s superior financial clout and that gap in spending power will increase, season on season, as things stand.

Ireland’s provinces will not be able to compete for the marquee names from the Southern Hemisphere if money is the ultimate arbiter. The days of recruiting, to borrow an example from Ulster, John Afoa, Ruan Pienaar and Johann Muller, may be gone but former Leinster and Ireland hooker Bernard Jackman says the Irish provinces will still be able to attract top players.

Head coach
Jackman, who takes over as head coach in Grenoble from his current role in charge of the first team defence in the summer is currently finalising his squad for next season: 21 players were cut from the existing roster. There is no room for sentiment. Many of them got the club to the Top 14 from Pro D2 but Grenoble are ambitious, aiming at a place in the top six rather than trying to avoid relegation. As things stand, they should manage to avoid the drop, unless there is a bizarre sequence of results on the final weekend of the Top 14.

“The Irish provinces may not be able to afford a Matt Giteau or several of the top, top players in pure salary terms but they do have advantages in other respects. They only have to splash out on three big names, where we have room for 16 foreign players. It’s the main reason why the playing budgets are so massive in France.

“Irish provinces tend to think outside the box more, offering an extra year on a contract or finding a job for the player’s wife or partner. There’s also the language aspect of things. Not every player considering switching hemispheres wants to learn a new language. The provinces shouldn’t have to take a gamble with just three foreign contracts to fill, provided they’ve done their homework; which they do.”

In Ireland an Academy player can earn between €4,000 and €15,000, a development contract starts at about €25,000 while a senior contract begins at €35,000. The production line of young talent in Ireland is the envy of many other countries as is the cheaper pay structure here.

It’s not just the foreign players or French internationals that command six figure salaries in France. Jackman explained: “No one in France would take a senior contract for €50,000. There are players who are playing Federale 1 (Division Three) who are earning € 2,500 net a month with an apartment and car on top: some clubs having a salary budget of € 1.5 million. The net monthly wage of an average player, someone, who might not get into a Leinster, Ulster or Munster team is about € 14,300.” Being able to trouser € 160,000 is quite a stipend.

Best players
The fear that Ireland’s best players would chase the euro to France have eased. The IRFU, after losing out in the case of Jonathan Sexton, managed to hang onto Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien. The French may suspect Irish players are the ultimate ‘tyre kickers,’ so to speak, when it comes to negotiations.

Not all Irish are viewed with the same scepticism. Clontarf-born scrumhalf James Hart has started 16 matches for Grenoble this season and is the team’s front-line kicker; not bad for young fella who came on trial at Jackman’s behest. He’s been rewarded with a three-year contract.

Young Munster’s Shane O’Leary is in the academy while Chris Farrell, a former Ireland underage international centre and a great prospect joins from Ulster in the summer.

A young Irish player, under the age of 20, who spends three consecutive years in a club’s academy, then enjoys the same status as a French national, thereby losing his foreigner tag. There are a number of Irish players, and coaches for that matter, in the French Pro D2 League. Making an academy back home isn’t a requirement for a professional career.

In recruitment terms a good scouting network is becoming increasingly important for the Irish provinces. The bank balances may not be comparable but as Munster may demonstrate tomorrow afternoon success has many layers.

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