Tony Ward: Toulon's dominance shows need for quota system and salary equality
Published 05/05/2015 | 02:30
The easy option is to put it all down to money. A third European title on the bounce rests in Toulon this week but it does so on the back of a group of rugby players who, though extremely well paid, are also united in a common cause. Those Toulon Globetrotters put bodies on the line to ensure their side was victorious at Twickenham - just as they had done in the previous two seasons.
What we witnessed was a much better, more open finale than any of us had anticipated. Yes it was intense, yes it was nerve-ridden, yes it was attritional for large tracts; but equally it had its moments of sublime skill - both offensive and defensive - at the highest level outside the Test arena and on the biggest stage in Europe.
That the two best teams in the tournament qualified for the 2015 final is also beyond dispute and that the better French team won on the day is equally so. The first ever Champions Cup wasn't bought - it still had to be won by those expensive signings.
Saturday's final was Test standard in all but name. Toulon could be compared with Real Madrid, Chelsea or Paris Saint-Germain in football but while buying big is easy, buying the right players with the right attitude to fit a pre-determined system requires careful planning and here the much-maligned Bernard Laporte deserves all the kudos coming his way.
Do I like the blueprint? No, but these are different times and this is a different game that is still evolving. There is a clearly need for a more stringently applied salary cap and an equally pressing need for an imposed quota of overseas players per squad. While French club rugby may be ruling the roost north of the equator, its national team is playing catch-up on the back of it.
However, I don't quite share the doom and gloom scenario painted by some for Les Bleus. Once they get the right coaching fit, they are capable of beating any team, New Zealand included. Perish the thought, but can you imagine just how good they would be if a certain former assistant coach at Clermont were enticed by the FFR into their madcap national fold?
Thankfully, Joe Schmidt is ours and no stone should be left unturned in extending his national contract for as long as is realistically possible. But back to Saturday and another tour de force of controlled winning rugby in which the so-called mercenaries gave their critics a display worthy of the term galactico.
Big players produce big performances on big days. And Ali Williams, Drew Mitchell, Steffon Armitage (particularly influential) and Mathieu Bastareaud led the way for Toulon. I know the principle of this expensively-assembled global jigsaw is uncomfortable but when these handpicked superstars deliver with such consistency it is difficult not to admire from afar and, let's be honest, with a little bit of jealousy too.
Big-name players have been central to the establishment of professional rugby here on the European stage. The signing of world-class stars like Ruan Pienaar, Rocky Elsom, Dougie Howlett and Mils Muliaina (to name but a few) have been greeted with open arms in all four provinces here.
Would we be quite so loud in our criticism if a Denis O'Brien or JP McManus was footing the bill for a Connacht, Leinster, Munster or Ulster Globetrotter set-up here? Some may baulk at the thought but it's on the way and no we'll not even mention the new WGC-World Match Play champion in that likely scenario!
The nub of the problem is a balanced playing field and right now the wind, hill and sun are heavily weighted in the French League's favour. The salary cap is essential but I would suggest an EPCR agreed player quota even more so. As of now the club with the most cash is making that advantage tell. Will it be enough to secure a fourth successive European crown? Time will tell but there will be another changing of the guard in Toulon ahead of next season.
If Matt O'Connor had a task in succeeding Schmidt at Leinster then what chance former Argentinian and Italian great Diego Dominguez at Toulon? There are poison chalices and poison chalices. While losing Williams, Bakkies Botha and skipper Carl Hayman to retirement plus Chris Masoe (another key pillar) to Racing Metro, the new main man will have the likes of Ma'a Nonu, Samu Manoa, Napolioni Nalaga, Salesi Ma'afu and possibly Quade Cooper as replacements. Not an inconvenient starting point.
Toulon would have some 18 players of overseas extraction in their ranks, while the three Irish Champions Cup squads between them would not boast that number. Ironically, Connacht in the Challenge Cup under Pat Lam would have the most non-Irish-aligned players at this point in time.
Although fundamentally driven by Top 14 and Aviva Premiership Rugby, the EPCR Board (composed of club and Union organisations representing the six competing nations) is only too well aware of the potential damage an English- or French-dominated competition could have on the tournament.
Yet it's going to take some bartering - political and otherwise - to hit common ground between salary equality and non-indigenous player quotas. Like him or loathe him, Mourad Boudjellal, much like Roman Abramovich, is driven by a passion for his sport and for his club. He has paved the way for others to follow, and while that doesn't make the moneybags approach right, its success makes the runaway train that much more difficult to halt in its tracks.
RC Toulon have thrown down the gauntlet. For the sake of the tournament, it's time to take up the challenge. There has to be compromise and a balance struck. Because while it may be rugby, it's not as we have known it.