Toulon made it three in a row this weekend, a feat never before seen in the old Heineken Cup or new ERCC format. But what are the ramifications of the disproportionate actions taking place in French Rugby?
Toulon won a historic third European title in a row on the first Saturday of May against Clermont Auvergne. This is quite an achievement as they’re the first side the tournament, old or new format to win three in a row. However, is it good for Northern Hemisphere, Club and International Rugby, if the ‘PSG of Rugby’ can dominate a competition for three years on the trot?
One of the big talking points before the game was the fact there would be a lot of empty seats as tickets sales were not going as well as officials had hoped. This was the worst attended Final in over 10 years, with there being over 23,338 empty seats at what is meant to be the pinnacle of the European Club season. This attendance is even worse when you consider that the last two times the final was held in London, in 2007 and 2012, they were sell outs.
The French supporters, whether that is supporters of Les Blues or their club, have never been known as good travelling supporters. There’s also the fact that some English supporters may not have bought tickets just because the final involved two French teams. What also has to be taken into consideration is that this is the first year of the new format for the tournament and all the teething problems that come with that have to be kept in mind.
The main problem behind the low attendance is that people saw that Toulon had gotten to the final and weren’t as interested as previous years. This is the third year in a row they were involved, a lot of the players who were involved in their first final back in 2013 were still there in 2015. Star names I’ll admit but one of the things that made the Heineken Cup so attractive over the years was the range of teams who could win it if they got a good run going and also the number of surprises that could occur.
Between 2005 and 2013 there were 8 different teams getting to the Final, there was always a different combination. Like 2006 was Munster v Biarritz (when they were good) while the next year it was Wasp v Leicester followed by Munster v Toulouse. In contrast, between 2013 and this year three different teams have competed in the final.
The new format is doing exactly what the French and English wanted it to do, giving them a better shot at winning the tournament. Not happy with how ‘easy’ it was for the likes of Connacht, Edinburgh and the Italian teams to qualify for the Heineken Cup, they demanded change. The French and English got what they wanted. Now fewer teams from the Pro12 qualify automatically and more do on merit in the new format.
The new tournament, even though it is in only its first year, has not been as good as previous years. The main talking point throughout the whole tournament was that nobody would be able to stop Toulon without playing out of their skins. Admittedly Leinster did push them all the way in their semi-final, the fact that Toulon were able to call upon the likes of Steffon Armitage when required paid dividends in the end.
The kind of spending power that Toulon have along with many of the Top 14 teams dwarfs the financial capabilities of the Pro12 and Premiership teams to compete consistently at the same level. The Premiership are trying to counteract this problem by increasing the salary cap, currently at 4.5 million, so as to enable teams offer better terms to top level players. However, under the current rules Premiership clubs can only bring in one player who is excluded from the salary cap. Under the current definitions of an ‘excluded player’ pretty much the whole Toulon starting 15 from the weekend would probably fit the category.
Regarding the Pro12 and a salary cap there is no universal approach for the league. The Welsh clubs work with a 3.5 million salary cap while the Irish Provinces Munster, Leinster and Connacht are not tied to any set caps but, with the IRFU controlling the purse strings, the figure is closer to that of the Premiership.
The salary cap in the Top 14 at the start of the current season is 10 million euro. More than twice that of the Premiership and the Irish provinces, and nearly three times as much as the Welsh regions. Hence, we see the huge disparity which is causing many pundits, like Brian Moore, to say ‘’a handful of Top 14 owners threaten [the] entire sport with their policy of hoovering up the world’s best players’’.
However, why would owners like Mourad Boudjellal stop spending vast amounts of money on their club when it is clearly bringing such success for French clubs? The last three finals have involved at least one French team and more and more people are being attracted to games creating great atmospheres, just look at any video from the Clermont/Saracens semi-final if you need convincing. Last but not least, lots of revenue is being created which the owners will love.
The International Rugby Board should introduce something similar to the Financial Fair Play system in Football. Either that or a universally agreed salary cap across Northern Hemisphere leagues. If something is not done soon, the Champions Cup will continue to be a procession rather than a tournament and will not be as beneficial as the English and French hoped or wanted.