France versus England will be fascinating not just because it is England’s first major chance to show that they have taken their game to a new level and win a grand slam for the first time since 2003, but also because the two sides are so similar and yet simultaneously so different.
England and France have the biggest rugby player bases on the planet. According to World Rugby, there are 340,000 registered players in England and 291,000 in France. Only South Africa can match this around the world with 342,000 registered players.
In both countries, the top level of domestic competition is made up of clubs rather than provinces and regions, and those clubs are independently owned and controlled from their governing bodies. This is in itself unusual in the rugby world, with almost every other major rugby nation centrally-contracting or dual-contracting their players in some way. In essence, England and France followed a more football-based blueprint for the dawn of professionalism, whereas most other nations have adopted more American Football ‘NFL-style’ systems.
Both countries have been blighted by club v country issues throughout the age of professionalism, yet only England has taken steps to come to some sort of compromise with their top clubs. The EPS agreement that was signed in 2007 after the RFU hired former leading club advocate Rob Andrew to broker a figurative ceasefire meant the RFU was paying the clubs for greater player access. According to World Rugby Test windows, clubs are only obligated to release players for the week before each game, meaning countries like Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy were having their players for an extra week in the Six Nations previously.
Moreover, clubs were not obligated to release players for fallow weeks in the Six Nations schedule, meaning clubs could select their internationals in the middle of the tournament. The EPS agreement means England’s head coach, Eddie Jones, is able to keep hold of 23 players during these weeks. However, this is not the case with France.
France has never made any such agreement with its clubs outside of a World Cup year. It is true that the FFR and the Top 14 clubs signed agreements for greater player access in the build up to both the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, but this Six Nations many of France’s leading stars were back with their clubs in-between games against Ireland and Wales.
Is it any coincidence that France beat Ireland one week and lose to Wales a fortnight later? This is after all the other nations’ players have put their feet up the previous weekend and had an extra week of training compared to France. You can be the most talented players in the world, but if you’re exhausted it’ll show up against fitter and better conditioned athletes.
Conversely, the EPS agreement is by no means perfect. Jones is limited in the number of changes he can make from previous squads. We can only speculate how different his first squad would have been if he had been given free reign. Unfortunately, he was limited to eleven changes from England’s World Cup squad.
As part of the last ‘heads of agreement’ signed by the RFU and Premiership rugby – the umbrella body of the clubs – both sevens and ‘A’ fixtures were to take less prominence than they had done previously, with the RFU centrally contracting a small core of sevens specialists. Previously, the sevens side had been used a feeder team for the 15s national side, and players like James Simpson-Daniel, Mat Tait and Tom Varndell were stars of the sevens game before moving on to full international honours. Now England sevens is struggling and not even Ben Ryan – now coach of Fiji’s World Series-winning team – could turn around their fortunes.
In France, the clubs are taking over the game and their combined financial clout is more than a match for the FFR’s coffers. They are deciding the future of French rugby and it looks to be one that mirrors the world of football more than anything. Players are paid by their clubs, spend the majority of their time with their clubs and are constantly playing catch-up with the rest of the rugby world when it comes to Test level.
One cannot help but feel for Guy Noves, Toulouse’s much-decorated coach who has struggled to make an impact on the international team after finally being given the job, having missed out to both Marc Lievremont and Phillipe Saint-Andre previously. Like his predecessors, the problem is not the quality of coaching but the lack of time he has with the players and the fact that they are not primed for the aerobic rigours of the Test rugby any more.
Even if France manage to beat England on Saturday, it will be a damp squib for the French and ultimately a solitary piece of paper over ever-widening cracks. Rugby needs a powerful French side and to see the French team playing so woefully and looking so second-rate at times (interspersed with rare moments of sheer genius) is a sad sight for any true rugby fan.
Watching international football now is painful in its inconsistency, stodginess and lack of fluidity. One would much rather switch on a top club game on the telly than any international side and with French rugby this situation is starting to emerge as well. Seeing Clermont Auvergne or Toulon in full-flight is a thing of beauty, but watching France can be like stabbing pins in one’s eyeballs.
England, on the contrary, are making the most of their EPS compromise and it’s paying off. Even without central contracts, England can and have succeeded. Now France must decide which road it will take on the club v country crossroads it finds itself at. Let us hope they see sense soon.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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