Sunday 19 November 2017

Please Munster, shove Boudjellal back over the line he has crossed

The behaviour of Toulon's owner is becoming more and more reprehensible, writes Neil Francis

DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 18: Mourad Boudjellal owner of RC Toulon celebrates their victory during the Heineken Cup final match between ASM Clermont Auvergne and RC Toulon at the Aviva Stadium on May 18, 2013 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
DUBLIN, IRELAND - MAY 18: Mourad Boudjellal owner of RC Toulon celebrates their victory during the Heineken Cup final match between ASM Clermont Auvergne and RC Toulon at the Aviva Stadium on May 18, 2013 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

'I was always a sports nut, but I've lost interest now in whether one bunch of mercenaries in North London is going to beat another bunch of mercenaries from West London." John Cleese saying it as it is. Maybe Torquay United have some players who were born and reared in Torquay, maybe not.

The faces in Dublin last week were as long as a rainy November Tuesday afternoon. Leinster are out – that's bad. Out to a bunch of pricey bandoleros – worse still. Munster are still in and though outgunned in every department against Toulon, except that is the intangible sense of belonging, still have a chance of advancement because of it.

Watching the Toulon players pump the crest over their heart – a vacuous sentiment practised by many Mickey Dazzlers in the Premier League one season for one club and another the next – I'm sure the irony was lost on nobody except the man who lodges the cheque to his bank.

Heritage is a strong theme in the Irish provinces. Leinster's PR machine works their county heritage very well. Leo Cullen is a Wicklow man, the Kearneys are from Louth, the Tank is from Carlow, Drico is from north Dublin and Luke from south. It makes sense to get currency out of a player's birthplace and where they grew up – birthright is a powerful tool in sport.

Toulon beat Leinster with only two French internationals in their side and both of those, Sebastian Tillous-Borde and Mathieu Bastareaud, have very little to do with the blue-collar shipping port of Toulon. In the Premier League, even Roman Abramovich knows the value of local boys Frank Lampard and the unspeakable John Terry.

Mourad Boudjellal, Toulon's owner, has very little sup with the concept of birthright or a hometown boy. Success is the only currency he is concerned with and the people of Toulon, who are hard-nosed and well-bred rugby people with a club that did have real pedigree before the money arrived, don't care much, it seems, about whether a Saffer or a Samoan wear their red as long as they win and entertain, and in that order.

I am happy for them if that is what does it for them, but every time they win something, a little bit of me dies. Every time Mourad Boudjellal uses his rugby club, his sporting organisation, as a tool to further his political and commercial needs, I feel the melancholy strains of Abide With Me reverberate around my head. How many Mourad Boudjellals will we have in 20 years? You pay your money down, you pay the wages and you run the commercial side of the organisation – effectively that means you decide who to appoint to manage and you decide which players to pick because the very functioning of the club depends on your fiscal largesse. You the money, you the man!

In football, the Massimo Cellino saga came to a conclusion last week. The quest for control of Leeds United hinged on whether Cellino was seen as a fit or appropriate person. The laughable 'owners and directors' test set out by the FA was circumvented by Cellino's lawyers even though the Sicilian had "unspent convictions for offences of dishonesty". In sport, it seems if you have the loot, well come on down.

As Mr Cleese once said: "How much do you hate the Romans?"

"A lot."

"Alright, you're in."

An owners and directors test me bum. Cellino's conviction, which might yet be overturned, is for tax evasion – duty on a yacht.

Boudjellal has nothing like that hanging over him, but he is a combustible and impulsive individual and some of his actions over the last year or so have been irrational and contrary to what you would expect from a purported man of rugby.

During the bitter battle over the Heineken Cup, we got a flavour of Boudjellal's unpredictability. The English clubs in the early stages of the war thought that the French clubs were four-square behind the revolt. An agreement underpinned by a vague notion of solidarity with their English brothers broke when the LNR, corralled by the French federation, upped the ante in relation to JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation), a regulation which was brought in to safeguard French rugby. There were too many foreign players playing in the Top 14, which would be bad for the national side so a cap would be put in place to limit the amount of imports. 60-40 French-born/qualified to imports. A generous quota to my mind.

Boudjellal, if he had any toys remaining in his pram, threw them out. This was a racist plot, restraint of trade etc. Exactly what was racist about it? Boudjellal broke ranks with his confreres in the LNR and threw his support behind the ERC. It would be the Celtic Nations and Toulon – an unlikely alliance. The LNR relented when they were subvented €2m each from the FFR to step back into line. The upshot of this was that none of the Top 14 clubs could trust the Chairman of Toulon to agree to anything. A volatile individual who none of the other owners could read. Boudjellal's antics were beginning to try everyone in French rugby.

After several seasons of wearisome mediocrity, Boudjellal hired Bernard Laporte, the former French national coach, another transient intellect who prior to his appointment had dabbled in politics unsuccessfully with Nicolas Sarkozy's regime. Laporte was directing operations from afar last Sunday as he was the recipient of a 16-week touchline and stand ban for some virulent and trenchant criticism of a referee in a Top 14 league game. Boudjellal wrote an open letter to Francois Hollande, the French President, looking for clemency. Quoi?

This is on the back of Boudjellal's reaction to what he considered another refereeing slight after Toulon lost to Clermont in 2012. "I had my first refereeing sodomy in the 2010 semi-final against Clermont. I've just had my second tonight. It appeared to hurt the first time but it was just as bad this time. We will review the images not on YouTube but on YouPorn." Don't know how the mammies and daddies of the Toulon mini-rugby teams would have received that one.

A few weeks ago, Toulon pulled out of a planned fundraiser in the pre-season in July against Pro-Div 2 side Beziers. The Beziers club used to be a powerhouse in the 1960s and '70s but have fallen away and are financially imperilled in the lower reaches of the second division.

The town of Beziers voted to install Robert Menard as their Mayor. Menard is a National Front candidate and that particular party swept 11 boroughs in recent elections. The world over there doesn't account for political taste or allegiances but last time I checked most countries of the western hemisphere were governed by the principle of democracy.

The people voted and Beziers now have a National Front mayor. This country has as much to be ashamed about after some of the beauties that have been elected to both chambers of the Oireachtas.

Boudjellal did not like what happened and canned the proposed fixture. He could quite easily have cited logistical or scheduling difficulties but chose to platform his opinions and use a sports club as a political tool to vent his anger.

Ireland played a match against Zimbabwe recently in the T20 Cricket World Cup. I fundamentally disagree with everything that has happened politically in that country over the last 20 years yet I respect the right of both countries to be able to park any and all difficulties and engage in a sporting competition.

You cross a line when you do as Boudjellal has done. Why not avoid the contentious crossover and pull his comic books off news stands in the town of Beziers? Don't use a rugby team to sate your political frustrations. France has been up in arms about that decision. We didn't have to wait for more controversy.

Boudjellal made his feelings clear about referees again after the Leinster quarter-final. "I'd been told that there was a referee to avoid so I didn't want him. We realised that there was a referee, every time he refereed Leinster, they won. He refereed them in the quarters, semis and final."

It seems Boudjellal only opens his mouth to change his feet. Why have the FFR not sanctioned him for such ridiculous and irrational outbursts?

It does not matter whether he is deemed to be a fit or appropriate person to run a rugby club – he has paid his money down and he runs things as he sees fit. Unfortunately that is the direction the game is going in. I do not like anything about Toulon or the way they comport themselves.

There are many reasons why Seán O'Brien chose not to join Toulon. It is quite possible that one of them was because he did not want to be employed by a loose cannon whose antics and behaviour have become more and more reprehensible as the years go by. There are many reasons why I fervently want Munster to win in two weeks' time. Chief amongst them is now no longer a secret.

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