Irish ready to give nouveau riche French a run for their money

Provinces will have to punch above weight when they face financial behemoths of Top14

Toulouse scrumhalf Jean-Marc Doussain gets his box-kick away against Clermont last week. Connacht face Toulouse this weekend, while Ulster will meet Clermont in back-to-back matches in December. photograph: Thierry Zoccolan/AFP Photo/Getty Images

Toulouse scrumhalf Jean-Marc Doussain gets his box-kick away against Clermont last week. Connacht face Toulouse this weekend, while Ulster will meet Clermont in back-to-back matches in December. photograph: Thierry Zoccolan/AFP Photo/Getty Images

 

Here come the French. The renewal of Euro hostilities pits the four provinces against six of the seven French entries in this season’s Champions Cup, beginning with a quartet of Irish-French affairs this weekend, and by rights the Irish teams should be no-hopers.

Stellar names of the global game decorate the Top 14 clubs, whose budgets dwarf those of the Irish and their fellow Pro12 teams, bankrolled as they are by an increasing preponderance of sugar daddies and hefty television money.

The current €71 million per year deal with Canal+ for broadcasting rights for the Top14, which runs for five seasons from 2014-15 to 2018-19, is more than double the previous €31.7 million deal. This will increase to €97 million per year as part of the whopping €388 million Canal+ deal over four years from 2019.

To put this in perspective, the combined television rights for the Pro12 are reckoned to reap €14 million per year.

Accordingly, the French clubs’ playing budgets are vastly greater than their Irish counterparts, averaging as they do over €20 million per year. Nowhere will the financial divide be more evident than in the Sportsground tonight, where Toulouse will be the visitors. Their budget is reportedly €31.5 million, the biggest in the Top 14 and more than six times that of Connacht’s. And yet, of course, this is no guarantee that the French will swat aside their more home-grown and financially constrained Irish opponents.

Best foot forward

Eight weeks into the Top 14 seasonand much of the fare has been as desultory as ever; plenty of scrummaging and mauling, and one-off runners and kicking, with most content to put their best foot forward only at home. And for all the scrums, only 40 per cent of them have seen the ball in play – the rest resulting in penalties or re-sets.

A further tweaking of the bonus points system has had negligible effect. In addition to only awarding an attacking bonus point to a team which scores at least three tries more than their opponent, the threshold for a losing bonus has been reduced from seven to five points.

Yet, so far, there have been just 10 away wins in 56 games, equating to a mere 18 per cent, which is the lowest ratio since the Top 14 came into existence. Then again, there have been six draws, already more than last season’s entire tally of four. All has been played off to the usual soap opera off the pitch.

Castres, Toulouse, Bordeaux/Begles and Racing Metro provide the opposition in that order for Leinster, Connacht, Ulster and Munster this weekend. Additionally, Montpellier lurk in Leinster’s pool a week later, while, unluckily for Ulster, they also have back-to-back meetings with Clermont in December.

Clermont, as ever, have been setting the pace and playing the best rugby – until last Sunday. Then they struggled to win at home to a Toulouse team which brought little more than a scrum, a maul and plenty of one-off runners. Prior to that though, Clermont had won three home games handsomely and have suffered only one defeat so far – by 23-21 away to Toulon.

With Franck Azéma still in charge in succession to Vern Cotter, they are also the most settled, offsetting the return of Jonathan Davies to the Scarlets by signing French international centre Rémi Lamerat from Castres, former Wallabies lock Sitaleki Timani from Montpellier and Welsh prop Aaron Jarvis from the Ospreys. So by the time they go head-to-head with Clermont, Ulster may need to have beaten Bordeaux away and Exeter at home over the next two weeks – a tall order.

Despite a relatively subdued start to the season, Bordeaux are fifth in the Top 14, although they’ve missed their trio of injured backrowers, Marco Tauleigne, Luke Braid and Peter Saili, and are apparently worried about the threat posed by Ulster.

Leinster’s opening opponents at the RDS today are Castres, who are the lowest ranked of France’s seven Champions Cup entries in 11th place. Historically, Castres have been happy to take the money and run in Europe, and yet again one suspects that domestic affairs will be their priority. But they can be awkward, cussed opponents.

Leinster are away on Sunday week in Montpellier, who are backed by Syrian-born French billionaire businessman Mohed Altrad, born 68 years ago in the desert of Syria. His mother died on the day he was born and his Bedouin father gave him away to his grandparents when he was four. But he earned a scholarship in Montpellier at the age of 17, arrived with 200 francs and went on to earn a PhD in computer science, eventually buying a French scaffolding and cement mixing company in 1985. This morphed into Groupe Altrad, which employs over 7,000 people. He has also written three novels.

Jake White guided them to Challenge Cup victory last season and the semi-finals of the French Championship with an infusion of South Africans and a reprise of the 2007 World Cup-winning rugby which led to the moniker ‘les langueboks’.

Playing recruits

But the relationship between Altrad and White worsened after White applied for the England job following the departure, ironically, of new Leinster coach Stuart Lancaster, and two weeks ago it was announced that Vern Cotter would take over next season – with Ruan Pienaar and Aaron Cruden supposedly lined up as playing recruits.

No less than Toulon, Racing Metro have proven that under the ownership of an ambitious benefactor, Jacky Lorenzetti, success can follow. Having been beaten in the final of last season’s Champions Cup, they beat Toulon in the Top 14 final to win the French Championship for the first time in 26 years.

They were fortunate to win the Paris derby with a 79th-minute try last week after being outplayed for the first half in the fallout of the L’equipe story that revealed traces of corticosteroids were found in the urine samples of Dan Carter, Joe Rokocoko and Juan Imhoff in the aftermath of that historic victory over Toulon.

Their venerable core of ex-All Blacks – Ali Williams (35), Chris Masoe (37), Carter (34), Casey Laulala (34) and Rokocoko (33) – are clearly past their peak but may be typical of the club’s desire to now add the Champions Cup to last season’s bouclier de brennus.

It’s not only Connacht who are an altogether different beast compared to when Toulouse visited the Sportsground and won both times – so are four-time winners. They have long since abandoned the brand of rugby which set them apart from their rivals and many of the old guard, such as Theirry Dusautoir and Patricio Albacete, appear to be fading forces, although both were amongst those rested last week in advance of their opening Champions Cup skirmishes, which is perhaps a statement of intent by the four-time winners. And they’ve power aplenty up front.

Even over the last relatively fallow five years on the European stage, the record of the Irish provinces against French clubs offers hope. Last season, despite Leinster losing home and away to Toulon, the provinces won five of the eight pool meetings, with Ulster completing doubles over Toulouse and Oyonnax, and Munster sharing a home win apiece with Stade Francais.

Hence, the departing Ulster defence coach Joe Barakat was this week eager to address the subject of the rich getting richer in European rugby.

“I’d like to comment on that. Our job is to deal with the things that are tangible and things we can deal with. They have players, we have players. They pay a little more for their players. Our competition is weaker we don’t have the same TV rights and TV deals that pour millions back into their competition. But it’s an open playing field. We have all got two eyes, we have all got two arms, we have all got two legs.”

Head-to-head record

Indeed, to back up his points, over the last five seasons the Irish teams’ head-to-head record with French clubs over 44 meetings is 24 wins, one draw and 19 defeats. Distilled into the last three seasons, the Irish provinces have won 15 and lost 11. It’s also worth noting that Toulon accounted for seven of those 11 French wins.

Toulon are the only one of the seven French sides whom the provinces have, for once, avoided this season in the pool stages. They are drawn in pool three with defending champions Saracens, whom they host in the Stade Felix Mayol today, Sale and the Scarlets.

Mourad Boudjellal has been throwing his toys out of the pram again, and threatening to walk away from the club. Yet despite that and the ham-fisted way Marc Dal Maso and Mike Ford have been co-opted onto the coaching ticket with, or more likely without, the say-so of Diego Dominguez, their playing resources ensure they trundle along.

Even so, without the departed Bernard Laporte as their off-field driving force, as well as the on-field leadership of Jonny Wilkinson, Bakkies Botha, Williams and Masoe, they no longer seem quite the domineering force of yore when winning the trophy three times in a row.

Even so, the European Champions Cup does not have the cache of the Top 14, in part because the former has been acquired by beIN Sports, which has about three million subscribers and is known more for its football coverage, whereas there is only one Champions Cup game per round on the free-to-air France Television.

So it will be the usual French challenge, with some more interested than others, plenty of muscle up front, way more potent at home and packed full of stellar former internationals.

In other words, plus ca change.

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