Over recent years, the Top 14 has earned a reputation as the world’s premier club rugby competition. For the most part, this adoration stems from the staggering wealth of many of the French clubs and the role these funds play in attracting the world’s best rugby talent.
Week-in, week-out some pundit or another calls for rugby competitions around the world to be more like the Top 14.
Only a matter of weeks ago, Brendan Cannon called for radical reforms around player mobility and listed requirements that would transform Super Rugby into a sort of Southern Hemisphere Top 14.
Yet the Top 14 is not all it is cracked up to be.
French clubs may be wealthy, and their lists clogged with big-name stars, but at the heart of the Top 14 is a fundamental problem: the competition is neither engaging and engrossing.
In fact, French rugby is fundamentally flawed, due the Top 14’s approach to player mobility.
Based on merit, engaging and enjoyable sporting competitions function to determine – for participants and spectators – which sides are the better ones.
Whether it be based on my perspective as a former player or simply as a keen spectator, I approach each and every game I watch with the understanding the better side should win.
Moreover, if a sporting competition is properly administered, the better sides, by definition, will win.
Equally, I believe the very best sporting competitions should seek to minimise the scope for contests to be forgone conclusions before the game has even been started.
At the juncture of these two principles lies the failing of the Top 14.
So far over this season, home sides in the Top 14 have an 84% winning percentage. This means the very best sides in French rugby are routinely beaten by much poorer sides due to home/away advantage alone.
This stat is a staggering figure, particularly when compared to other domestic rugby competitions.
For instance, homes sides in the Aviva Premiership have a winning percentage of around 56%. Similarly, home sides in the Pro 12 and Super Rugby have a winning percentage of 58% and 57%, respectively.
These winning percentages are far more in keeping with the notion the best sporting competitions offer a reasonable opportunity for either side to emerge victorious.
In other words, in Aviva Premiership, Pro 12, and Super Rugby, home advantage does not allow poor sides to routinely beat good sides.
In fact, in these competitions, on average, the better sides does in fact win the majority of the time – even when they are playing away.
So why does the Top 14 display such a strong home advantage? Historically, a number of explanations have been offered.
The most common of these are as follows:
1) French fans are rabid and hostile.
2) France is a ‘large’ country and teams are required to travel ‘long’ distances.
3) Officials in French rugby consistently ‘favour’ the home side.
However, each one of these explanations fail to hold under any sort of rigorous scrutiny.
Firstly, French fans may well be passionate, but I genuinely doubt they are anymore committed or rabid than South African, New Zealand, Irish or Welsh supporters. Try playing a match in Pretoria, Dublin or Cardiff if you don’t agree with me!
Therefore, why don’t clubs in Wales, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand win 84% of their home games?
Secondly, sides in the Top 14 do travel considerable distances compared to their European club counterparts, but this travel pales into comparison to Super Rugby.
There a few trips more gruelling in professional sport than a mid-season trip to South Africa! Using this logic, South African should never be beaten at home.
Although it’s hard to win over there, South African sides only win around 65 per cent of home games against non-South African sides – nowhere near 84 per cent.
Finally, while French rugby has historically had a reputation for questionable adjudication, these problems are largely a thing of the past.
As increased financial backing has flooded into the Top 14, the competition has had to become far more transparent.
Top 14 officials are now, give or take the odd call, on par with referees in the other major domestic rugby competitions.
If the Top 14 home advantage is not a function of these factors, then why do poor French sides win so consistently at home?
The real answer is somewhat more nuanced than the above explanations.
The home side is far more likely to win in French rugby due to the competition’s liberal labour market. In short, the ability for players to move fluidly into and around the Top 14 is both the competition’s major drawcard and structural weakness.
The logic proceeds as follows: Rather than teams – in the true sense of the world – Top 14 sides are really just loose aggregations of talented individual rugby players. Stars sign with and leave clubs like Clermont, Stade Francais and Toulon on a regular basis.
This means French clubs tend to possess performance records more volatile than their counterparts in the rest of Europe and the Southern Hemisphere.
Case in point: On a good day, a Top 14 side like Toulon can shoot the lights out and run up big scores against any side in the world; on a bad day, a side like Toulon will lose – away – to a minnow like Bordeaux, Oyonnax or Brive.
Furthermore, as aggregations of individual talent, Top 14 clubs are – for the most part – devoid, on and off the field, of any meaningful unity or cohesion.
As such, these sides tend to fall apart or struggle when added strain or pressure arises – like dealing with injuries, off-field instability, and, most importantly, playing away from home.
When players are largely unfamiliar with one another – as is the case in the Top 14 – set plays are botched, passes dropped and defensive structures confused in the face of hostile away crowds and the strain of life on the road.
In short, teams that don’t know each other are terrible away from home.
In something of an interesting case study, the two most ‘internal’ French clubs, Clermont and Toulouse, possess winning records more consistent with a powerful English or Southern Hemisphere club.
It is no coincidence these two sides, although open to trading for foreign players, tend to place a priority of recruiting and developing local talent.
In short, good French sides – compared to their Super Rugby equivalents – struggle away from home due to the Top 14’s obsession with absolute player mobility.
So the next time you read an article calling for South African or New Zealand players to compete for Australian franchises, or you stumble upon a forum thread gushing about the next big thing in French rugby, think to yourself – do I really want to follow a competition where even seemingly ‘good’ sides consistently fall apart when they have to play on the road?
Ben is a retired former Wallaby front rower who has been asked about his neck injury more than a million times by his reckoning. Yes, it’s fine, thanks for asking. Ben was lucky enough to be involved with, mainly as a hanger on, some wonderful sides at the Brumbies and Wallabies. He works in coaching, analysis and media and has started his own analysis company Gainline. Ben’s company tracks teams recruitment of players and how it impacts on their results.