Our man in the know looks at the reasons why money talks when it comes to French rugby.
Last Updated: 22/05/13 11:49am
The Heineken Cup is undoubtedly the biggest domestic trophy in the world.
It is the competition that every big, bad team in Europe wants to win. If you asked any player in the soon to be defunct EU if they wanted to win the Premiership, Top 14 or the Heineken Cup, they would not hesitate, to a man.
The most exciting nights are spent in front of full houses seeing the best of Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England try and keep up with the "Joneses" or the French in this case. I don't know how to translate Jones into the Gallic tongue, probably by throwing money at it.
It is the one tournament that the Southern Hemisphere players are envious of. Or at least tune in to watch.
The all-French final this year has come as no great shock. They have the financial clout to buy the best players, therefore they should be. It is not always the case (See Manchester City) but more often than not you will be there or thereabouts. It is possible to purchase a trophy.
Rather than pondering the long-term ramifications this is having on the game as a whole, I am writing to give the opinion of the players. Which I fancy may be wildly different from those of the steel toe capped, non-sponsored, ankle-high boot generation.
As far as the players are concerned the free-spending French are an incredible blessing.
"Le Grande Argent" has become an opportunity for players to earn what five years ago only the very top two per cent of internationals could even consider asking.
It is the free market in operation. The largest profile players to the highest bidder. This isn't to say that all players are mercenaries that have only one motivation, but the players are fully aware of the dangers and pitfalls that surround their chosen vocation. Retirement age is around 35, couple that with the fact that earnings can disappear in a moment through injury - the letters ACL can send a shudder down the most robust of spines - and you can see why the French connection is so appealing. Players want to maximize their earnings in the small and ever shrinking window of professional life. Under a standard contract once you are injured clubs can stop paying you after six months. An ACL reconstruction roughly takes around nine months.
Let us be under no illusion that Jonny Sexton is moving abroad as the Irish Rugby Union could not compete with the money offered to him.
It is a simple business decision and before you all snort with derision at the term "business", like it or loathe it that is how the game now functions in the professional era.
It is also worth pointing out that the sums involved, though astronomical compared to a 'real' job, are not in the same universe as footballers wages. Nor should they be. The more pertinent follow up to the money question is what happens to all these overpaid, undereducated young men once the knees, shoulders and cervical discs have finally given way. The players are (almost always) appreciative of how lucky they are to be doing something they love for a substantial fee. However they still need to make smart decisions for themselves and their families.
Lots of players refuse the lure of money for international glory. England, Ireland and New Zealand will not select players (only under extraordinary circumstances) that are not playing in their respective domestic league. These three nations can afford to do so as they have so much strength in depth. Wales and Scotland though rich in talent are limited by playing population. Very few players have left New Zealand, Irish or English shores while stand out contenders to play internationally. This can only be a reassurance to the esteem with which international rugby is held. It is still the pinnacle that no money can replace.
The money is not always greener on the other side of the Channel. It cannot guarantee that you will get on with the coaches. It does not prepare you for the amount of physical and bruising training sessions that the French coaches seem to favour. It cannot compensate for the lack of nutritional, physical-conditioning and medical facilities on the continent nor can it teach you the language. Very few of the players that have enjoyed playing in France and relished the nuances in culture and lifestyle have done it while not learning the language.
Of course living in France does offer the player and his family the chance to sample the finer things, the best food and wine in Europe (allegedly), a climate that cannot be compared to that of Belfast, Newcastle or Glasgow with a straight face, a passionate rugby mad population that see it as regulation to bring a brass band and a cockerel to every home game. Perpignan even has its own resident artist. The greatest of these is also the fact that playing in France currently offers you more than gold, more than lifestyle, It offers you the chance to win.
Ask Jonny Wilkinson how many domestic and European trophies he has held aloft and he can probably just about remember the Sir John Hall era.
So the players benefit financially and it also offers them the chance of glory and the chance to sip a full-bodied Merlot in the garden. Where is the draw back? The consensus at the moment is that the league is unsustainable. A club that relies solely on one wealthy benefactor is a precarious institution. It also limits the number of French players that are playing at the top-level week in week out.
Philippe Saint Andre has already shrugged in a Gallic fashion and made noises alluding to the fact that he cannot select a French fly-half as they are all sat in the stand.
The bubble will eventually burst as quotas are brought in and various French owners draw in the reigns. I would however make the point that it is not just for outstanding skill that these players are brought in to play in France. France produces some of the most skilful players in the world.
What owners really like and really value in their foreign stars is heart and discipline. The day in, day out attitude of the English try-hard, or the relentless professionalism of the Kiwi international.
That is where the French game has moved on. Although short term the French players are losing out to the foreign legion. All the French players, especially in the academies, will have seen Bakkes Botha at work, seen the hours that Jonny puts in, watched the intensity that George Smith brings to every single breakdown. That can only be a positive thing for the French game. That can only reap dividends down the line. Here's a small wager that the next generation of French internationals are world class, world-beaters, world cup winners.
The final itself was a tremendous game, a solid, brutal, exciting but not spectacular game of rugby. The French coaches still encourage the players to offload whereas in the English league a premium is put on possession and keeping hold of the ball. You have to admit that offloading is the way to create an exciting and open game. Vive le Offload.
Credit to Delon Armitage for again displaying the sort of sportsmanship and grace we associate with rugby union. Seemed an extraordinary gesture with the game left hanging in the balance. His past indiscretions have clearly taught him very little. Other players watching would have not been surprised and that is the most damning indictment.