Soaring budgets and salaries make France the money capital of the European game
If Jonathan Sexton moves to France ahead of next season, he will be joining what is, by some distance, the most lucrative rugby championship in Europe. Budgets and salaries have tripled in the Top 14 in the past 10 years, with the average wage around €10,000 per month.
Attendances have increased by 50 per cent in five years, with Racing Metro hoping to move to a new 32,000-capacity stadium – the biggest rugby-specific ground in the country – within the next few years.
The average budget is around €18 million. Toulouse lead the way with almost €35 million set aside for this season, while Clermont, Stade Français and Toulon are next. Racing Metro have the fifth highest budget, at €21.74 million.
A salary cap was introduced three years ago but at €9.5 million – €800,000 more than last season – it dwarves that of the English Premiership.
Against that only six Top 14 clubs turned a profit in 2011, as the body tasked with monitoring the league’s finances reported a total loss of €9.8 million in 2010-2011.
That worked out at €700,000 each on average, although it should be noted that Stade’s implosion at the time accounted for 75 per cent of the overall sum.
The increase in popularity, budgets and foreign imports is also down to the arrival of some heavyweight owners from the business world. Jacky Lorenzetti, at Racing Metro, is still thought to be worth around €250 million, despite ploughing much of the fortune he made at real estate company Foncia back into the club.
Comic book publisher
He is joined by Mourad Boudjellal, the comic book publisher behind Toulon, and it is no coincidence that wage costs have continued to spiral since Lorenzetti’s Racing and Boudjellal’s Toulon returned to the top flight in 2008 and 2009.
Added to them could be Mohed Altrad, who took a controlling interest in Montpellier in May 2011 and has grand ambitions for the club.
Now that the club are finally enjoying considerable success, Michelin will undoubtedly continue to bankroll Clermont, but other clubs have fallen by the wayside in an effort to compete.
Bourgoin, Brive and Montauban all featured in the Heineken Cup but later fell on hard times, while even Stade and Perpignan have fallen foul of the authorities over their finances.
Stricter regulations on the number of French players required at a club will kick in next season, but that will not stop the top clubs from continuing to target the best foreign talent.
But while the financial benefits for Sexton would be huge, he would, like all imports, face some significant challenges if and when he moves to France. The biggest obstacle, according to former Munster outhalf Paul Warwick, would be the language.
“The language is very important,” the former Stade outhalf, just moved to Worcester, said. “I don’t know him very well but if he has any French it’s obviously a definite help in communicating with the team and directing them around the park.
“But you can pick the rugby language up quite quickly and obviously in terms of plays and patterns, each club has their own language. So wherever he goes, he’s got to learn a new language to some extent.
“Their focus over there in that position is certainly kicking and controlling a game. He does that quite well and he’s going to have a very good team around him if he did go there (Racing Metro).”
French-based players and owners face fines of €50,000 if they discuss transfer details directly before the transfer market officially opens, so all will become clear on April 20th.
Six Irish players who went abroad
(London Irish) 1995-2000
French foreign legion
Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal’s marquee signing in 2009, Wilkinson is reportedly earning up to €1 million a year when image rights are included. A hugely popular signing, the World Cup winner’s contract expires at the end of the season but he could yet stay.
The 33-year-old earns considerably more than two of Toulon’s more recent big-name signings, French international Freddie Michalak (reportedly €700,000 per year) and the Australian Matt Giteau (€600,000).
The New Zealand international is said to have turned down a bigger offer than Sexton to move to to France a few years ago.
He did eventually sign a six- month, €700,000 deal with Perpignan five years ago, but injury meant he played just a handful of games. Earlier this season he was linked with a return to the Top 14, with Racing Metro rumoured as a possible destination.
The South African wing is set to join the foreign legion at Toulon by signing a three-year deal in April.
The 2007 IRB player of the year will join a host of other highly-paid internationals at the club including England’s Delon and Steffon Armitage, Argentina’s Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, New Zealand’s Carl Hayman and Chris Masoe and fellow South Africans Bakkies Botha and Joe Van Niekerk.