France’s Top 14 is killing French rugby

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Another Six Nations is done and dusted, and with it the battle for Northern Hemisphere supremacy. Wales deservedly won the Grand Slam while England did better than expected with a young, bold and talented team.

Both nations have a bright future with an average age of 25. Players like Davies, Cuthbert, Tuilagi, North, Farrell or Morgan are still in their early 20s. Don’t pencil them in as World Cup winners just yet, but they have every right to believe that they are on the right track.

Declan Kidney’s Ireland are behind and will have to unearth some new talent if they want to avoid what looks like a pending fall in world rugby. Last week’s performance against England was abysmal up front and although the foundations are good, they, like Wales and England before, will have to take some drastic rejuvenating measures to ensure such hidings don’t recur too often.

Italy and Scotland are undoubtedly the fifth and sixth nations of the lot. Jacques Brunel’s first few months as Italian head coach have been encouraging and if they keep on playing with this new attitude, results should come their way.

But how about France? Two wins (against Italy and Scotland), two losses (to England and Wales) and a draw against Ireland. Yes, we are talking about the 2011 Rugby World Cup silver medallists.

This result would have been poor if the French went in with new, developing players. But this side was almost the same as the one that so nearly defeated the All Blacks in the World Cup final.

Coach Philippe Saint-Andre clearly wanted to start his coaching reign with a Six Nations’ win. He failed. Badly. There are no excuses for the result. His team was the most experienced of the tournament. He knew that Nallet, Bonnaire and Servat were retiring from international rugby after the tournament, while players around 31 or 32 included Rougerie, Clerc, Yachvili, Harinordoquy, Pape, Mas, and Poux.

Yet, all of them were selected. Nallet, Bonnaire and Servat ended their rugby career on a sour note rather than the World Cup silver medal high.

Dusautoir, Debaty, Szarzewski, Pierre, Poitrenaud and Fritz will all be around 32 or 33 come the next Rugby World Cup. Some are still at the top of their game. Leaders like Dusautoir or Szarzewski should stay and make the transition between the generations. But Debaty, Poitrenaud or even Pierre have always been fringe players for France and this won’t change: they are not going to be the best in their position in 2015.

To play a post Rugby World Cup competition with an ageing group didn’t make any sense. It was a waste of time at best.

Question: does French rugby have the young cattle that Wales and England have unearthed in the last couple of years? Let alone the talent unearthed by the southern hemisphere teams over the past few years? Unfortunately for France, the answer is no.

Despite this, France’s domestic Top 14 has arguably some of the best players on earth as well as the biggest budgets in world rugby.

While this may seem strange at first instance, it should not be a surprise to anyone.

Around 40 percent of Top 14 players are foreigners: players who can’t qualify for their national sides. That’s roughly 250 players.

Teams like Toulon or Stade Francais have over 20, and no Top 14 club has less than 10.

Many in the 22-man squad which played Wales last weekend are not even regular starters at their own club. Beauxis is behind McAlister at Toulouse; where Poux shares the front row with Steenkamp, Botha and Johnston. Pierre has to deal with Cudmore and Hines in Clermont’s second row; while his teammates Rougerie, Fofana and Buttin share the backline with Sivivatu, Russell, Canale, Byrne or Murimurivalu. This pattern continues across the league.

If French internationals struggle getting game time at club level, how do you expect them to find and develop new talent? Outside the Six Nations, when many internationals re-join their national squads, it is impossible. While it happened with Christophe Tolofua this is not a sustainable means of talent development.

The situation French rugby is facing now is no surprise and is certainly not unique in Europe. England’s football team is in the same boat. Rich, cashed-up clubs want to win titles, now. For this, they need the best players in the paddock. Laws in Europe being what they are, humans can travel and work wherever they want.

That’s why Mourad Boudjellal, Toulon’s president, has Giteau, Wilkinson, Hayman, Sheridan, Botha, Shaw, Fernandez-Lobbe, Tawake, Van Niekerk, Henjak, David Smith and Lovobalavu on the same roster. Young French players get the bench-warmer role at best.

Realising the national team was going to hit the wall sooner rather than later, the LNR (Ligue Nationale de Rugby) decided, at last, to intervene and put a stop to this nonsense. A programme ensuring local development was created, JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation), which involved players coming from training clubs or training centres. This organisation has set quotas relating to the periods of time players have spent at particular training centres/facilities, that teams must adhere to.

Starting at 40 percent JIFF players in 2011-2012, the quota will increase to 60 percent in 2013-2014.

That’s a start. With awareness comes responsibility and although the solution offered is undoubtedly too little too late to aim at anything significant in the next few years, depth in French rugby should improve beyond 2015. However, these rules must be adhered to by clubs to ensure results.

Already there are talks of recruiting 16 year-old foreign players through these ‘training centres’. They would qualify as French by the time they are adults.

If practices like this become common, it will only spell more trouble for French rugby.

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