Sunday 11 December 2016

Neil Francis: French quota system to shake up game in Europe

Gravy train set to end for expensive imports as succession of flops on international stage forces Les Bleus to take drastic action

Published 14/01/2016 | 02:30

New restrictions will see a reduction in the number of overseas-born players like Scott Spedding playing for France. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile
New restrictions will see a reduction in the number of overseas-born players like Scott Spedding playing for France. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / Sportsfile

On Saturday, October 17 last year, France and New Zealand walked out onto the turf in the Millennium Stadium to play a Test match.

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It is amazing that two teams can enter an arena and think that they are playing the same game. The brand of rugby that New Zealand chose to play bore no resemblance to what France were trying to do and so there was really only going to be competition in the static phases of play - once the ball moved outside of those areas the French were lost.

62-13 represents a good thumping by any standards - but I can half understand why Steve Hansen was crabby after the game. New Zealand butchered five or six clear-cut try-scoring opportunities - the worst being Ma'a Nonu's. After a sensational break, he would have scored if he hadn't inexplicably lost the ball as he got over the line on the last play of the game. 69-13 would have better reflected the gulf in quality. It could, though, have been 90 if all had gone right.

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France, innocent bystanders to the apocalypse, retreated to their dressing room with the sense that it was an unrelated third party who had just suffered that 80-minute implosion. Sometimes the scale of a defeat can be so withering that you are too numb to feel embarrassed.

On October 21 - a mere four days later - the FFR took steps to belatedly save themselves. The response to the humiliation? I must say I do prefer a good old-fashioned knee-jerk reaction rather than apathy and inaction. It had been evident for a while that French rugby was going down the tubes and decisive action was required.

The Joueurs Issus des Filieres de Formation (jiff) regulations were drawn up and started this season. All Top 14 teams are required to have 12 players registered with the FFR for at least five years before they turn 21 or have spent three seasons in an FFR-approved training centre if currently under 21. Quotas! FFR quotas where French nationals have to be selected in the match-day squad of 23. Next year it will be 14 French nationals in a squad of 23. Huge fines for non-compliance and the threat to go to 16 is being proposed.

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This action will significantly change the entire dynamic of the Top 14. The gravy train is about to come to a shuddering halt. All those who suggest that we here in Ireland should buy more imports will now have the chance to pick and choose because next season 'le grande offload' will happen. They will go and chance England first, but Ireland with our provinces underperforming in European competitions, will be a target for Paddy le Pension.

France and England's demise at international level has been discernible for the last six or seven years. It is true that both teams have had a succession of witless personalities in the head coaching role. Marc Lievremont (Clouseau) and Philippe Saint-André (son of Clouseau) were tactically bankrupt and left France and French rugby in a worse state than when they received it.

It is usually the honorary treasurer in the Union/Federation who is the first person to call a halt. In professional rugby all over the world, it is the international team that generates most of the income that will sustain and propagate the game.

I can really only interpret the Irish model and extrapolate revenues and costs to see what it earned where.

In the 2015 accounts, the IRFU had revenues of €74.1 million - an incremental increase on the previous year (€3/4 million). Revenues from international fixtures came to €36.7 million. Commercial income from those matches came to €8.5 million and deferred ticket income came to €15.1 million. A total of €60.3 million. Revenues from provincial competitions came to around just €9 million.

You don't have to be a genius to work it out. The professional game completely depends on the health and well-being of the national team for the survival of the professional game in this country and every major rugby-playing nation in the world.

The French looked at their domestic game and saw that Johnny Foreigner held sway in every single last roster in the league. Clermont (65%), Toulon (55%), Toulouse (52%) and Racing (53%). Whatever about the social fabric of the team or their fans' ability to choke out support for three or four Englishmen playing for their town or region, it had become so obvious that French players playing for the national team were not good enough to get into their own club sides - even when they did their game time would be limited.

This manifested itself in the national side where French teams now no longer are capable of giving or taking a pass fluently or at pace. The French national side had become a parody. If the French national side was staffed by roster players who were getting a dozen games a season and unable to develop well then you would get a French side that would play s**t rugby and lose. France have had losing seasons for the last four years and FFR's revenues began to reflect that.

Four days after the quarter-final humiliation, direct action was taken - it may not be radical enough.

Our friend Mourad Boudjellal has called the action "racist" and "sectarian". What will now happen with the comic seller is that he will offload his foreign legion and start buying up the best French players.

The English, envious of the attention that the Top 14 was generating, agitated for an increase in the salary cap. This went up from £5.5 million to £6.5 million and that doesn't bring into account the permitted excluded players (two) where you could pay a marquee player millions to join and it would not count for the purposes of the cap.

England and the Premiership will now be the pension ground of choice until the English national side gets worse and the RFU realise why the French had to take the action they took.

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This brings us nicely to the emerald isle. I've never fully subscribed to the notion that imports are good for well-being in Europe. For every Isa Nacewa there is a Dodo - a duck-billed platypus and a Ballyfree turkey. I also have gone on record on residency players - I fundamentally disagree with the notion that Christiaan Johan Schultz should get in ahead of Chris Henry or Rhys Ruddock - Irish by birth, Irish by right.

It is another reason why France has brought in JIFF. The number of Scott Speddings, Noa Nakataicis, Bernard Le Rouxs or Rory Kocketts will drop dramatically also. Real Frenchmen playing for France.

The French might be dominating the Heineken Cup at the moment. JIFF will change that but what would the FFR do right now for a Six Nations Championship?

It's a simple solution. Invest in your home-grown players, pick and choose your imports, keep a constant stream of national-qualified players bubbling under and make sure nothing interferes with the process of preparing your players for international duty because the national team pays the bills. Repeat after me - the national team pays the bills!

Irish Independent

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