Top 14 Spending Continues As Grass Roots Rugby Once Again Overlooked

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RC Toulon's French president Mourad Boudjellal celebrates after RC Toulon's won the French Top 14 rugby union match between RC Toulon and La Rochelle, on May 26, 2017 at the Velodrome stadium in Marseille, southern France. / AFP PHOTO / Franck PENNANT (Photo credit should read FRANCK PENNANT/AFP/Getty Images)

Another ‘summer of spending’ has brought with it a further influx of overseas players into the Top 14. French clubs are preparing for the start of the new season with haste. But, are these overseas players hindering French home-grown players from flourishing in their own back yard?

The Top 14 has always attracted some of the biggest names in rugby. Wealthy club owners; often foreign to French soil themselves, stack their teams with lucrative financial offerings. Arguably, and as result of the external spending, the French national side suffers.

The flair and extravagance of old Les Bleus sides was something to behold. They reigned on the back of shear will and bravado. Yes in recent times, its evolution has waned into a flat and at times a desperate showing of a frustrated-brand of rugby.

So, with the 2017/18 season approaching, and with All Blacks Aaron Cruden and Charlie Faumuina just some of the latest International acquisitions on their way tino the Top 14 this season, it could well be another poor one for the national side.

Has the Top 14 Salary Cap Worked

In looking back to 2015, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby imposed a €10m salary cap. Essentially, to curb the outlandish spending in rugby’s wealthiest club competition. But clubs were accused of taking advantage of loopholes in the system.

It led the LNR to stipulate that any bonuses exceeding more than 10%, must be included within the cap. However, some clubs like Toulon provide players with 10-20% bonuses and [word has it] could even reach as much as 50% in some cases.

In many ways, the LNR must reign in on clubs’ spending. That action would have bilateral outcomes. Including the likelihood of football-style transfer fees is becoming an ever more reality. The Aviva Premiership only just introduced new measures, to halt the rise of post-season raids on talent.

Likewise, fielding a certain numbers of home-grown players could also begin to creep in. Controls that, for the Top 14, would perpetuate a change in thinking by the usually high-spending clubs.

Below is the percentage of each club’s overseas player signings for 2017/18:

  • Agen – 55%
  • Bordeaux – 38%
  • Brive – 45%
  • Castres – 17%
  • Clermont – 60%
  • La Rochelle – 27%
  • Lyon – 38%
  • Montpellier – 50%
  • Oyonnax – 63%
  • Pau – 50%
  • Racing 92 – 56%
  • Stade Francais – 55%
  • Toulon – 62%
  • Toulouse – 50%

Only five clubs have signed more French players than imports. Surprisingly, newcomers Oyonnax just stretched Toulon in acquiring the most players from overseas. Top 14 spending continues, with Clermont and the ‘nearly merged’ Racing 92 and Stade Francais all breaking the 50% mark.

It will be interesting to see how teams like La Rochelle and Montpellier fair, following successful seasons last year, in as much for their team make-up, as in their representation of French players.

Laporte’s First 100 days

With Bernard Laporte in post, as FFR President, it will be interesting to see if he continues his commitment of culling the number of foreign internationals in French rugby. In one of his first tasks as President, he announced that France would stop selecting non-French players who qualify under three-year residency rule.

But Laporte and his supporters are keen to back this up, and lower the active number in the Top 14 and the Pro D2 – France’s second tier competition.

However foreign born internationals including Uini Atonio (Samoa-born), Virimi Vakatawa and Noa Nakaitaci (both Fijian) featured heavily in last season’s Autumn Internationals and Six Nations. How the Laporte polict applies, will be a fine balancing act.

Despite finishing joint second in the Six Nations alongside Ireland and Scotland, there were still question marks over French rugby. In particular, of head coach Guy Noves. Even after a disastrous 3-0 whitewash to South Africa, Laporte has opted to stand by Noves. Both hope that the nationals will shine in Top 14 competition 2017/18.

But for Laporte, the problems are much closer to home.

Back To School v Top 14 Spending

For French rugby, the divide between senior and junior level is huge. Although there is a similar structure to the Premiership with academies, there is a distinct lack of development in the junior/school level.

There is currently no competitive rugby in French schools. It puts them at a huge disadvantage – by comparison to their British, Irish and Southern Hemisphere counterparts.

School sport in the UK is progressively becoming more and more competitive. But due to its non-existence in France, it means young talented players slip through the net. Without developing core skills at school, it impacts future development – perhaps something that has been apparent in the French squad.

Top 14 spending could also provide an indication of the decline in French sport. Conversely, football is arguably the only sport where there has been the greatest success. With specialist schools for young football players where talent is spotted, it paves the way for children and young people to become part of a development system. That can then lead to professional contracts and playing at the top level, but it is supported at the junior levels. Unlike rugby.

Rugby Failing to Capture Young Players

Rugby is an area where talent identification is lacking. Laporte must use his position to affect change in the sports education system. By using the nationalistic view; french-born players first, he might well gain support in the republic.

Change at the lowest level will undoubtedly have an impact toward positive change at the top level. Without change, French rugby will continue to be at the disposal of overseas players. Young, promising French players will continue to make way for the South Africans, Aussies, Kiwis and British.

The actions of club owners like Mourad Boudjellal (see main picture), in continuing to import talent like Malakai Fekitoa, over that of local players. The lack of development is also removing the base level of skilled talent, for men like Guy Noves to select from.

In that mind, France are currently ranked eighth in the world. To make improvements, how much time will it take to address this ever present problem [overseas players dominating local competition]. If left unchecked, Top 14 spending can only further dampen France’s pursuit of success on the International stage.

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The 2017/18 Top 14 season kicks off on August 26.

“Main photo credit”
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