Top 14 in danger of eating itself, and others

Holders Toulon lead the way as only the super rich can afford twin trophy pursuit

Rory Kockott

Rory Kockott

 

A week ago last season’s beaten Heineken Cup finalists rested most of their key men with one eye on a return to European fare.

Content enough to emerge with a bonus point defeat, they could do this while knowing they have the resources to maintain a push for their annual place in the play-offs of their domestic league. It’s the kind of thing the French clubs complain about when the dastardly celts play ‘weakened’ sides in the Rabo Pro12 only this time, of course, it was Clermont Auvergne who fielded a ‘weakened’ side.

That they still managed a bonus point in defeat to Toulon in the newly built, 35,000 Allianz Riviera Stadium – which cost €300 million and where Toulon will host Cardiff in December – is both a reflection of Clermont’s desire to lay their hands on the Heineken Cup and of where the resources lie in the Top 14.

Money talks in European rugby, and amid the off-field brinkmanship which has taken this tournament to the brink, it has never been louder.

Clermont and Toulon have more than twice the budgets of some Top 14 clubs and four or five times that of the Irish provinces. In Clermont’s case, they are backed by the locally based Michelin plant. Toulon’s emergence amongst the nouveau riche is largely thanks to the money of comic book multi-millionaire Mourad Boudjellal, who has bankrolled the club in their rise from ProD2 to European Champions in four years.

Ala Maz Gauzzini at Stade Francais previously, Racing Metro, Montpellier and laterally Perpignan are others who have been backed by benefactors in enabling them to rub shoulders with the more established power bases of Toulouse.

Bigger wallets
The advent of men with big egos and bigger wallets has driven up inflation in French club rugby amid a global recession, prompting Biarritz president Serge Blanco to warn during the summer that the Top 14 is living beyond its means to such an extent that it “will die”.

French clubs’ average budgets have tripled in 10 years, according Blanco who claimed that “the deficit of all Top 14 clubs has escalated from €5 million to €25 million in only five years”. The whole system relies on “rich individuals who cover the club’s deficit”, brought about chiefly by the “mad inflation of salaries” which now represent more than 65 percent of teams’ budgets.

“Other countries cannot compete with the excess of some French clubs,” said Blanco, who called for a general assembly of French institutions.

Admittedly, Blanco’s warning came at a time when the Biarritz benefactor Serge Kampf has apparently stemmed his backing of the club, who now find themselves last in the Top 14. Therein lies the risk for those who can’t keep up, or whose benefactors don’t keep dipping into their pockets.

That the Top 14 is bloated, overlong, and the expansion to a six-team play-off has further diluted the product, doesn’t seem to matter. To date, less than 15 per cent of games have resulted in away wins.

Yet, there has been an explosion of public interest, in terms of television audiences and attendances. Aside from the twice weekly Midi Olimpique, L’Equipe devotes much more space now – three or four pages each Saturday and Sunday – while Canal+ screens three or four games live every weekend.

With the 13th highest attendances in last season’s Top 14, Castres never have been, and despite an improbable first bouclier de brennus since 1993 courtesy of a wondrous defensive effort in the final against Toulon, are even less likely to maintain an interest in the H Cup this year. Sated by last season’s win and now under a new coach, a host of leading lights are being linked with Toulon (goalkicking scrum-half Rory Kockott) or with their former coaches Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers at Racing (Anthony Claessen and Brice Dulin).

Nor is the explosion in spending power been to the apparent benefit of the French team. Toulon, who have 26 internationals on their books from eight different countries (including 17 from abroad) fielded only four French qualified players in last season’s Heineken Cup final, and in the last month, on an almost a weekly basis, they have been joined by Bryan Habana, Juan Smith, Ali Williams and Drew Mitchell. It’s little wonder French clubs claim to need more money, even if that will probably only mean a further escalation in wages and costs. The Top 14 is in danger of eating itself, the problem being that it could eat a few others along the way.