The spending power of Top 14 clubs could see them dominate Europe for years to come
This year Toulon won their third consecutive European Cup. Although they remain behind Toulouse in terms of the number of titles won, no team has dominated European rugby in the manner which Toulon have.
Toulon are not the only club flexing their financial muscles. Fuelled by a five year TV deal worth €335 million, Clermont, Racing Metro, and Stade Francais have each joined their southern counterparts. Indeed the average budget for Top 14 clubs during the 2013/14 season stood at €21.2 million. This increase has allowed Top 14 sides cherry pick the world’s best talent. Where some clubs would enter a period of transition following retirements of players such as Bakkies Botha, Carl Hayman and Ali Williams, Toulon have replaced these giants with other such as Paul O’Connell, Duane Vermeulen, Quade Cooper, James O’Connor and Ma’a Nonu.
Similarly Clermont have not only convinced David Strettle to abandon the England World Cup squad, but added Scott Spedding and Hosea Gear. Even smaller clubs such as Montpellier have brought in Bismark and Jannie du Plessis from the Sharks. Pau signed Conrad Smith and Colin Slade, while Bordeaux Begles enticed Adam Ashley Cooper and Luke Braid from the Waratahs and Blues respectively.
In contrast Aviva Premiership sides have struggled to attract top southern hemisphere talent this summer. While James Horwill and Jeremy Thrush could prove to be astute signings for Quins and Gloucester respectively, they are not in the same league as the southern hemisphere talent joining the Top 14. Instead they have looked at the Pro 12 or players from its constitute countries. Wales’ Jamie Roberts, Adams Jones, Rhys Priestland and Toby Faletau, will between them between them join Harlequins and Bath. Scotland will lose Tim Visser to Quins, Sean Maitland to London Irish, while Glasgow will have to do without Nikola Matawalu next season. Although Munster’s JJ Hanrahan has signed for the Northampton Saints, he is far from the finished product.
A similar situation exists in the Pro 12, where southern hemisphere signings are thin on the ground. Although Munster have added Francis Saili to their squad, the 24 year old is an unknown quantity. Equally, while Ulster won the race to bring in the exciting Charles Piutau, he will not join the province until the 2016/17 season. For their part Leinster have resigned two former players in Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa. As important as Sexton rejoining the province is to Irish rugby, Nacewa is returning having retired in 2013. The Ospreys meanwhile may have made the two most astute transfers in Gareth Delve and Paul James.
Given the context of the sport, the money available to French clubs is colossal, but comes with a warning. French Rugby’s financial watchdog the Direction nationale d’aide et de contrôle de gestion, recently reported that the combined deficit for Top 14 and Pro D2 clubs operating in the 2013/14 season was €33,891,000. Midi Olympique expanded on the report, claiming that €19.7 of the entire deficit belonged to just three clubs Stade Francais, Castres and Racing Metro. Although much of Racing’s deficit is linked to the construction of a new stadium and training facilities.
While the sustainability of such losses can be questioned, Toulon have moved away from their reliance on Mourad Boudjellal, being only one of two clubs to post profits in 2014. Toulon’s move toward self sufficiency has been achieved by their use of modern marketing techniques, such as creating a number 10 brand around Johnny Wilkinson, opening shops and even a restaurant in the city. Their dominance of European rugby therefore looks like it could continue.
However success at club level is having an effect on the French national team. Since they lost the 2011 World Cup final, France have finished in the bottom half of the table in each Six Nations Championship since. This should come as a warning to the RFU in London, as Premiership clubs, led by Saracens, want to do away with the salary cap and relegation to bridge the gap to the likes of Toulon. So strong is their belief, that a recent investigation into breaches of the cap in England has been suspended.
Alternatively the nations making up the Pro 12 see national contracts as a way of keeping their talent at home and allowing their club sides remain competitive in Europe. While their concept looks good, it is to the detriment of the marketability of the Pro 12, as international players do not play week in week out as they do in France.
The Top 14 has therefore stolen a financial march on its rivals, but it is coming at a price. The constituent nations in the Pro 12 seem to be happy with the league being secondary to international success, while the Premiership is caught between making the most of its potential and maintaining a strong English team.
Club Rugby has travelled down a long road since it became professional. None longer than in France. It appears to have travelled beyond the cross roads at which English rugby now finds its self. However the price of Mourad Boudjellal’s deep pockets has been incurred by sides who have gambled in the hope of keeping up. In this regard given the demise of Biarritz and Bayonne, and the losses suffered by all but two French clubs, questions must also be asked of how sustainable the Top 14 is. Therefore the secure structures and financial environment in which the Irish sides, in particular, find themselves will ensure that they will remain competitive for some time to come.
Nonetheless as Toulon’s domination looks set to continue, the rest of us need to ask ourselves, do we want a successful international side mirrored by an intermittent club success, or look for our clubs to gamble and compete with the machine that is the Top 14.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena