Brian O'Driscoll: Money talks, so Toulon will be too strong for Leinster
O’Driscoll believes Gallic powerhouses will prove too strong for Leinster and Saracens in semi-finals
Brian O'Driscoll knows more than most what it takes to dominate European club rugby, so his assessment, on the eve of the Champions Cup semi-finals, that there appears to be no end in sight to the current French hegemony will strike an alarming chord with the top clubs on both sides of the Irish Sea.
The restructuring of the European competitions this season, after two years of bitter wrangling, was designed in part to provide a more level playing field - both financially and in terms of the demands of the respective domestic leagues on playing resources.
Yet, as the inaugural Champions Cup reaches the business end, it is the French who've two of the remaining four teams with England and Ireland one representative each.
The fact that the Gallic powerhouses are backed by cash-rich owners who are able to sign practically whoever they want from the southern hemisphere's coterie of stars is a huge weapon in their arsenal.
In years gone by, O'Driscoll's Leinster were able to buck that trend - like Munster before them - by winning their three titles with a largely home-grown side, embellished with a sprinkling of world-class overseas talent such as Rocky Elsom, Isa Nacewa, Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn.
But O'Driscoll concedes that the big-spending French sides have made such an achievement more unlikely now, with the academies "not able to live with" the likes of Toulon's buying power. "When you talk about French dominance, the teams are coming from France but the players aren't," O'Driscoll adds. "Particularly with Toulon, they have this array of stars and it says it all when you look at the guys who can't make their bench. You can't just bring the best players together and expect them to click.
"There has to be a formula. Look at a team like Real Madrid, they've brought in the best players before and not been able to click. Toulon have managed to do that - they seem to have a good team spirit and enjoy each other's company and that is a big factor.
"They don't have an overly elaborate game-plan. They are reactive to what individual flair creates and their offloading and lines of running is down to quality players being able to read the game a fraction earlier."
Significantly, O'Driscoll notes that Irish provinces, while they are hampered at times by having less access than their English Premiership rivals to their national players because of central contracts, have already moved to bolster their squads with top-class southern hemisphere signings for next season.
Ulster's signing of the rising All Blacks star Charles Piutau, for example, is the kind of recruit O'Driscoll believes the Premiership clubs need to make if they are to return to their dominant position of a decade ago.
"You have to offer the guys that are going to France more money," O'Driscoll says.
"It's a career and they are going to go where the money is. There's a balance between wanting to go somewhere you might get success, but you've also got to look after your future.
"If you look at some of the signings that Ulster and Munster have made, particularly Piutau, that sort of quality of signing are the type of players that English teams need as well. They are world-class and still have their best years ahead of them. It is big money but that is probably the answer."
It is another former Ireland centre, Mark McCall, who leads England's sole survivors Saracens, who are flying the flag for the Premiership as they have done in the previous two seasons.
Unlike last season, when McCall's side had the benefit of playing their semi-final at Twickenham against Clermont Auvergne, his side must travel to the Stade Geoffroy-Guichard in St-Étienne tomorrow for a repeat of that fixture. The Top 14 side, following their quarter-final demolition of Northampton, are heavy favourites to avenge their comprehensive defeat in London last season.
"It kind of reminded me of the All Blacks down in New Zealand, it seemed like a different type of game," says O'Driscoll of Clermont's 37-5 quarter-final win over Northampton. "At times, when they are at their very best, you are going, 'Is this really happening?' I can only imagine what the Northampton players were feeling, because they couldn't even come close to the intensity Clermont were bringing."
It was back in 2008 when the Premiership last provided two semi-finalists - London Irish and Saracens - but they lost to Toulouse and Munster respectively.
Since then Leicester (2009), Northampton (2011) and Saracens last season have all reached the final, yet none have managed to end the European drought for English sides that stretches back to 2007, when Wasps won their second title.
Saracens could defy the odds and reach a second successive final, where they would have the benefit of playing at Twickenham again next month, but O'Driscoll, who won three Heineken Cups in four seasons with Leinster (2009, 2011, 2012), expects the London final will be an all-French affair, a repeat of the 2013 final when Jonny Wilkinson helped inspire Toulon to a shock defeat of Clermont in Dublin.
"The two French teams are too powerful," asserts O'Driscoll, admitting that his former Leinster team-mates will also be firm outsiders when they face Toulon at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille on Sunday.
"I think it's a big ask for Sarries to go to France twice and win. Having the final in London is a big carrot for them, but I think it's a big ask. Clermont have this great power game, but they have these silky runners: (Wesley) Fofana, (Jonathan) Davies, (Noa) Nakaitaci, (Napolioni) Nalanga, (Nick) Abendanon. If you get those boys ball, there's trouble. They have real quality throughout and I fancy them.
"Likewise with Toulon. I hope I am wrong, but I think they'll have too much for Leinster. It'd be great if we got a double shock. I'm sure Leinster would be happy to get Sarries and likewise vice versa."
There is a chink of light for English teams with the new lucrative broadcasting deal signed recently with BT Sport - for whom O'Driscoll is television presenter and an ambassador - will give the Premiership clubs more financial muscle from 2017. The domestic rights are understood to be worth £150million, an 80 per cent increase on the existing deal signed in 2012.
The salary cap is already poised to rise to £5.1 million for 2015-'16, with clubs able to gain £400,000 in credits for the number of home-grown players in their squad, while a second marquee player will also fall outside the cap.
O'Driscoll concedes that it is acting as a significant handicap to the Premiership clubs when competing in the market for the best southern hemisphere talent.
"It is a big factor. Money is going to attract the big players," O'Driscoll adds. "How many SANZAR (South Africa, New Zealand and Australia) players are coming to the UK and Ireland, and how many to France?
"The majority are going to France. Why is that? Not just for the tan. They are looking to make themselves a little pension. This is a career, no different to any other career; if you are offered another £100,000 or £200,000, the chances are you are going to take it.
"The English utopia is each club gets a Roman Abramovich and it's their little pet thing. Then they are able to extend salary caps and attract the better players. That, married with the best of the English academy players coming through, of course they'd then be competitive again. But it is going to be a money issue, the game is going that way. Just because it's sport, people talk about loyalty (but) it's a career.
"It's great that players can be loyal, but you can be sure that the players that are loyal are still being well looked after.
"I was one. I was well looked after by club and country and that allowed me to be loyal. But if someone comes with an outrageous offer, a Racing Metro comes, and the differential between that and Leinster is so huge, it's pretty tricky to turn it down."
Everyone saw what happened with Johnny Sexton, but now that the Ireland out-half is returning home, there is a chink of light for Leinster and other sides hoping to end French domination. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Clermont Auvergne v Saracens is exclusively live on BT Sport 1 tomorrow from 2.30pm