In my last article, we discussed why the French system helps bring through more underage players than anywhere else. We discussed how players like Antoine Dupont and Emilien Gailleton were able to be picked up by lower teams and in time make it to the top.
In this article we will look at what the French system does once it gets these players. It’s one thing to have lots of players, it’s another thing to develop them.
For clarity, I view Level 1 as the top non-Test teams of a Tier 1 country, and work down from there. Some nations feel they have missing levels, such as Australia with the lack of a National Rugby Championship. But is it the levels, or professionalism that is important?
Level 1 is Super Rugby and Top 14. Level 2 is NPC, NRC and Pro D2. Level 3 is Shute Shield, Hospital Cup, Heartland Championship and National. We know that France is bigger at every level because they have more players, a bigger economy, more billionaires, and all the other reasons why there are only 10 professional teams across New Zealand and Australia, so we aren’t going to discuss it here.
Professional players spend their job working on the sport, be that skills, strength and conditioning, learning the playbook, or plain old training. Semi-professional players can only spend a portion of their time on the game, be that per week, month or year. Amateur players work fulltime and fit the sport into their lives with a few training sessions between games and basic game plans.
These things become important when we look at the differences between France and Australia and New Zealand.
The issue is not the missing level, but the lack of professional places and the time spent being professional.
Currently the model most Australian fans want to copy is New Zealand, where players spend half a season at two different levels. A Super Rugby player is Level 1 and Level 2 while an NPC player is generally a level 2 and level 3 (playing for good clubs), while everyone else spends their time at Level 3 or below. In France, the vast majority spend their time at one level, be that 1, 2 or 3 and are fully professional for the entire year.
If an NPC player spends 10 hours a week at level 3 and 20 hours a week at level 2, is that as good as spending 30 hours a week at level 3 in the National? Most likely the National player will be fitter, stronger and have spent more time on skills and running plays. The NPC player will have played at a higher standard but the player development will be better in the National.
United Rugby Championship Chief Executive Officer Martin Anayi recently said that the URC teams were looking for two more home games via a Cup. This would bring the URC season up to 26 regular games with at least 7 possible playoff games. This is what a European season is. When we look at Super Rugby and the NRC/NPC we find there are 24 (14+10) regular games in a season with playoffs. Essentially, the Northern Hemisphere teams have rolled the two competitions into one.
If you are a slow developer in New Zealand you could be 20 before you even experience your first semi-professional setup. In France, if you can get an academy contract in any of the 3 divisions you are a professional for the next three years. An untimely injury in New Zealand could slow your development by a year, but in France once you are in it’s three years.
We only need look at France v New Zealand in the under 20s to see the difference being a professional makes. New Zealand relied on their players skills and intuition to make things happen while France was much more organised on both attack and defence. This happens because France’s players have been fully professional for 1-2 years. How they approached the breakdown was a standout for me in how professional they were.
The French coach’s job is to adjust a few small things from their foundational knowledge attained with their clubs. Yes the French pack was big, but that is mainly down to Posolo Tuilagi (18 years, 149kg).
The rest of the pack were similar size, with the smallest player by 11kg being French. Their second lock was only 1kg heavier than New Zealand’s lightest player. Often we can think it is just size but it was actually power and technique that won the day up front.
Ronan O’Gara as manager of La Rochelle knows his senior players and would have a view on any of the adult players at his club. He can ask his strength and conditioning coach about where his youth players are in terms of development. Both he and Scott Robertson oversaw the starting 10s in the France v New Zealand u20s in Hugo Reus (19) Taha Kemara (20).
The big difference is O’Gara has been working with Reus for two years, while Robertson would have had less contact. Even this year O’Gara had 10 months compared to Robertson 6 months.
When O’Gara picked Lucas Zamora (18) to play for La Rochelle over Christmas, or Reus for the final 6 rounds of the Top 14, it wasn’t because he had injuries, it was because they were ready. His strength and conditioning coaches had been preparing them to play since August, tailoring their plans to be ready. O’Gara and the rest of the coaching staff would have given them things to work on in the u21 league each week and while training with the first team.
It seems crazy to me the best coaches in New Zealand are only given 6 months to work with their players. Robertson spent 11 years either as an NPC coach or Super Coach but in that time he really only worked daily with players for half his time. With the current Super Rugby head coaching roles being filled with non-NPC coaches, some of those may head overseas for better money and more control of their squad each year.
Wayne Pivac is a good example of this. He coached Northland to win NPC division 2, Auckland to two NPC championships, as well as North Harbour and Fiji. Yet unable to pick up a role in Super Rugby he moved to be assistant coach with the Scarlets, which paid more and gave him more time with the players.
Maybe people can enlighten me on this, but it seems to be that if you watch any Super Rugby or NPC team they all play the same way with a few variations. I think this is because preseason is so short there is not enough time to work on new systems, and the season too short to implement change. France on the other hand can change 10% a month and be a completely new team by the end of the season.
New Zealand have an under 20s Super Rugby league, I don’t know if Australia do but if they don’t they should. As a URC fan I was jealous that we do not have an underage league yet. Then I dug into the material and found it was 3 games over 8 days, and was more of an u20 Baby Blacks training camp, which is very Super Rugby.
France has the Espoirs league which is for u21s. It use to be for u22s but having professionals play against academy kids was not deemed safe. This is something that may end up being a problem at the u20 World Cup too as Posolo Tuilagi can play u20s again next year. He has already established himself as Perpignan’s number 5 having played 628 minutes over 16 games for them. We saw what he did this year, imagine next year after another year of Top 14.
It’s fine to have the smaller backs be professional, but professional packs may be an issue.
No player who has a professional contract can play in the Espoirs, but Miles Amatosero (1041 first team minutes) and Tuilagi can, as academy players. This is the Top 14’s version of an NPC but it is all inhouse controlled by the club. It would be like the Blues running Auckland in the NPC against other NPC teams.
This league is two divisions with all 44 professional clubs taking part. The Top 14 are in Division 1 with the National Clubs in Division 2. The Pro D2 teams are spread over both divisions with teams going up and down based on performance. Division 1 is two groups of 10 playing 18 games across the season (almost twice the NPC). Division 2 has 3 groups of 8 with 14 games, meaning less games, less cost and less players needed for smaller clubs.
It’s not really a surprise that Toulouse won it this year, or that Clermont have won it the most, when you see their pathways. But it might surprise you that Pro D2 team Colomiers finished 2nd in their group in Division 1 ahead of all but 1 of their Top 14 challengers. For these young players it allows them to be in the shop window to pick up professional contracts. It’s not a week away once a year, but 54 opportunities over 3 years to secure a professional contract.
South Africa are mimicking this by playing the Currie Cup alongside the URC. The Stormers use their Currie Cup team to be the opposition to the URC team in their Tuesday training matches and I would expect the French teams to do similar in their weekly training. This is a great time to see young players prove they are ready to be moved up to the first team squad, such as Canan Moodie at the Bulls.
The reason people want an NRC is they know that Super Rugby by itself can never give enough gametime to enough people. Either it gives all the test players game time or it gives 2nd choice players gametime, but it can’t do both.
Players like Mack Hansen got tired of not getting enough minutes and headed overseas knowing even as a second choice player he could pick up a lot more minutes.
Regular Season = Games (playing minutes):
If a Super Rugby team played the same 15 players each of the 14 rounds, and never let a substitute on the field, the most each player could get is 1,120 minutes. If the first and second player got equal time that number drops to 560 minutes. If fringe players don’t play in Super Rugby, what can they do while it’s on?
This is why Super Rugby squads are so small. Why do you need three players per position if anyone outside the first choice 23 are lucky to get a game?
The URC and Premiership can give 2 players per position 880 minutes, 320 more minutes than Super Rugby. But the Top 14 can give three players per position 800 minutes each. If they give 1,000 minutes to the first two players there are still 400 minutes that can be used on the promising u21s like Miles.
Yes the NRC will give more game time, but it’s at a lower level and with new teams and squads. Going to a home and away league gives you the same number of minutes with little extra cost.
Super Rugby is half a season but it is competing with full season leagues like the Top 14. This requires it to pay more per match to players than they would get overseas. Yes they get more time off but most of us if offered 75% of our current income to work 50% of the time probably would not take it because we need the extra money, not the extra time. NPC and NRC are no different, where players are being overpaid just to get them to be semi-professional as life has to be put on hold for half a year.
An NPC coach is full-time but his actual time coaching players is only for half a year. NPC coaches need to be full time professionals as they are good coaches. If they were paid a semi-professional wage they would look to move to the MLR, Japan or Europe and get more money. Because of this NPC and NRC are not the most cost effective way to spent money to develop players.
New Zealand and Australia are now looking to give the top 60 Super Rugby players more Test games, which costs more money to fly them around the world. This has a knock on effect because the NPC needs to replace a lot of players in the XV squad who previously played in the NPC. All this adds up to a lot of extra costs for players and coaches.
By adding 8 more games to Super Rugby teams have 4 more home games which fans will attend. Most fans attend Super Rugby because they want to watch Level 1 rugby and have little interest in Level 2. Those who attend Level 2 are some from Level 1, some who only go to Level 2 and Level 3 fans watching their local hero.
Is NPC getting 65,000 (13,000 fans x 5 Super Rugby teams) per round (9,000 per game)? If it is, it should be able to be professional as it’s on par with the URC and above the Pro D2. If it is not, which I don’t think it is, more people care about Super Rugby and the All Blacks and not much else. This is why the Union is willing to take the best players out of the NPC and send them off to Japan for a month and then onto Europe.
Miles joined Clermont as an 18 year old in 2020 on an academy contract for 3 years, in which time they hoped he would be ready for a professional contract having played games for the first team. Three years locks him into the JIFF, allows him to get fitter, stronger and smarter as a rugby player. In those years he mixed starting for the u21s and the full team often in the same season.
Year 1 he played 190 minutes over 7 games for the first team, possibly a record for an Australian lock since professionalism. He played R12 & R14 in December, a time many young players get their chance, having shown their ability in the u21s. If you include the European games this would be like playing the last 2 rounds of Super Rugby.
No Super Rugby team is going to spend 4-5 months to get a player ready for two games. He then saw out the season playing R23-26 which would be the end of the NRC season. In between both playing periods he would have been told what to work on back in the u21s team.
He finished off year 1 with a bench spot against Bordeaux in the quarter-finals, having received 10 months of level 1 professional rugby, twice what a player his age would have gotten in Australia. Yes the NPC players get level 2 but it’s not the same standard as Super Rugby.
Year 2 he got 263 minutes across 7 games having been injured for part of it. This season, year 3 of his academy contract, he had 588 minutes across 14 games. This is the season he would have made his Super Rugby debut if he had stayed at home, as most locks do it the year after their u20s year. The difference is he has about 20 months of level 1 training before he was 20, rather than starting off on his professional journey.
There is no right way to do professional rugby, but some ways are better suited than others. Australia doesn’t have an NRC which means they need to do something. In my view Australia should be pushing for a 22 game season in Super Rugby. If New Zealand don’t want it then Australia has to do what is best for it.
There needs to be the ability to have professional players being in Super Rugby teams for 10 months of the year. A tournament must run concurrent with Super Rugby that helps bring through younger players, be that a Super Rugby u21s or a domestic competition allowing fringe players game time and the ability to develop on and off the field.
France are producing professional under 20s on and off the field, we either adapt or we get left behind. It’s only a matter of time before an underage Champions Cup happens, which with the u20s 6 Nations will force the URC and English teams to get their house in order. Super Rugby does not have that mechanism to make things happen.
If I were a forward just about to turn 18 I think I would be looking to follow Miles Amatosero’s path, and I think more people around the world will feel the same way too. If France and Georgia’s u20s continue to improve, they will sell the French system themselves.