Friday 19 July 2019

Neil Francis: Brigands who butchered Heineken Cup will strangle international rugby

France's decline a warning for us all as import-laden clubs seize more and more power

Clermont’s Jamie Cudmore takes on the Toulon defence in yesterday’s Champions Cup final at Twickenham
Clermont’s Jamie Cudmore takes on the Toulon defence in yesterday’s Champions Cup final at Twickenham
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

When the European Cup was set up in the 1995/96 season the organisers were bestowed with platitudes from some in the media, hailed as extraordinary men, people of keen perception, visionaries almost. They were only 30-odd years behind their footballing counterparts in UEFA, and the premise remains that if the game had not turned professional these Zen-like geniuses probably wouldn't have bothered to organise a European championship.

The foundation stone of this particular competition was to set up a sub-international standard competition for newly-born professional international players. When you look back at the standard of rugby that international players played in the lead-up to Test matches you realise how hopelessly inadequate it was. Something had to be done . . . eventually. The visionaries had no option but to go forward.

Twenty years ago, under the aegis of the Five Nations Committee, the idea was to prepare your international players for an international series by letting them compete and improve with continuous examination against English, French, Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian players. Standards would improve universally and the golden goose - the Five/Six Nations - would also have a rising tide of improvement, and the competition's teams would incrementally improve their international squad.

One of the things that pissed me off most about having to retire was not the money element that I would miss which would come about in the professional game - although that did come a very close second - it was the recognition that this new competition was the real deal. It had real appeal for the players and I was annoyed that I would only get two seasons out of it.

When I looked back through the results, it was interesting to see the composition of the teams that took part.

In October 1996 Leinster played Leicester in Lansdowne Road in a second-round pool match. Hard to believe that there were only 3,500 people at the game. We lost 27-10 in a very entertaining and - despite the scoreline - competitive game. The point is that all of the Leinster players were Irish. Leicester too had a full squad of Englishmen, except for Eric Miller. We would see Will Greenwood, Graham Rowntree, Darren Garforth, Richard Cockerill, Martin Johnson et al later on in the Five Nations.

Familiarity with Martin Johnson on the pitch is sometimes not good for your health but we had a good old scrap and you pick up things about a player when you compete against him on a continuous basis. See you later in the championship lads.

Toulouse had won the inaugural championship the previous year and in their second season had a squad entirely composed of Frenchmen. It was interesting that the final that year, in which an inspired Brive beat Leicester (watch Sebastien Viars' incredible try on YouTube) with a team composed entirely of Frenchmen except for their Polish No 8 Grzegorz Kacala. The Pole was an oddity - he was an awesome physical specimen and freight-trained would-be tacklers. He was voted player of the tournament. His advent was thought-provoking. Where did he come from and can we get more like him anywhere?

It was also notable that there was a 20-team format back then with four pools of five teams. One other thing that stood out before we get to the point was two otherworldly results in the pool sections that year: Wasps beat Toulouse 77-17 in London and then Toulouse beat Munster 60-19.

Things would change remarkably when it came to the composition of squads, to the point that the original charter is now completely redundant. It gives you an idea of how far the competition has moved on from the original principles.

The two finalists yesterday are undoubtedly the strongest teams in Europe. Yesterday only Wesley Fofana, Morgan Parra, Damien Chouly, Julien Bonnaire, Sebastien Vahaamahina, Benjamin Kayser and Vincent Debaty for Clermont and Mathieu Bastareaud, Sebastien Tillous-Borde, Guilhem Guirado and Xavier Chiocci for Toulon out of the starting line-ups are qualified to play for France.

Only two players out of the entire three-quarter line are French. No wonder the France backline can't pass anymore. Twenty players are Johnny foreigners in the Champions Cup final. It brings into stark focus two pressing matters. French rugby is in a parlous state at international level. Ronald McDonald can take a large portion of the blame, as the coach Philippe Saint-Andre's direction and record are lamentable.

The best French players don't get to play Champions Cup matches because they are being not being picked or are playing for teams not involved in the knock-out stages - a bad dose of reaping and sowing here.

Following the English Premiership and county cricket models here it is impossible to rear good quality international players the way the competition is structured from the point of view of nationality. It is true that with the quality of outside internationals coming in standards will improve but the playing standards of those who this competition should have helped hasn't because they are not being picked.

The brigands who butchered this competition moaned on about meritocracy in the competing countries' leagues. What they failed to govern for is the out-of-control market where in some cases two-thirds of your starting team are brought in from outside the country. Nothing was ever mentioned about meritocracy based on success achieved by indigenous players. What value is a cup won by wandering minstrels, hired guns and pension-seeking mercenaries?

A cap or quota of say four players per XV would bring things back into equilibrium or meaningful kilter. The problem is that Mourad Boudjellal accused the FFR of racism when they attempted to introduce quotas. The FFR and the unions are no longer in charge. These clowns can now do what they want and yesterday's spectacle was almost akin to Kerry Packer's cricket circus. Buy the players, put on the show and f*** the international game.

Our compadres south of the equator are at their wits' end trying to keep their Super XV competition alive and trying to stop their best players leaving. All of the SANZAR sides will have to come to a compromise on whether they will allow departing internationals to play for the national team. Even New Zealand, with its limitless playing resources, is feeling the pinch.

Our counterparts in football can afford to have the tail wagging the dog now because the financial model of the Champions League means that the thrust and focus of the game is with the clubs. The international game has been sucking hind teat for nearly two decades now and it has fallen.

The game at club level in rugby is not that sophisticated or mature from a financial perspective. Yet the clubs behave as though it is - despite the fact that the international game sub-vents and supports it. If the international game falters, and it already has in France, then the knock-on effects are obvious. The salary cap is due to be altered in England after the World Cup and England will be next down the slide on the international stage.

It has become a circus and the clowns who took power will run it the only way they know how.

Sunday Indo Sport

The Throw-In: Kerry back to their best, Connolly’s return and Cork’s baffling inconsistency

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport