April 23, 2021

French club rugby is now the gold standard and can offer lessons to English game

8 min read

Whatever the result of ‘Le Crunch’ on Saturday, French rugby’s growth and prosperity is providing an uncomfortable contrast with the ‘sad’ bigger-picture state of the English game.

At Test level, the balance of power between the countries has long lay on this side of the Channel, but the recent Gallic revival is being built on increasingly sturdy foundations. The oval-ball landscape is wide and vibrant in France, while it is shrinking here, amid a rush to engage in desperate cost-cutting and protectionism.

There is a growing gulf between the rival nations which may soon be reflected at all levels.

The French club game is making great strides and leaving rugby across the Channel behind

The French club game is making great strides and leaving rugby across the Channel behind 

France now has three professional leagues and the promotion and relegation model is driving interest, while in England there is one professional division which is about to be ring-fenced – and the second tier is now chronically under-funded and under-valued. The Gallic clubs’ new TV deal with Canal+ is worth three times what BT Sport are paying for Premiership rights.

Playing budgets here are a fraction of what they are in France, but quotas there have ended the problem of expensive imports blocking gifted French youngsters, which had a negative impact on the national team. Meanwhile, French rugby is expanding rapidly into new areas – both geographically and in terms of ethnic diversity.

Any health-check relating to investment and interest, exposure and dynamism would conclude that the French game is surging while the English game is declining. But why? It is a complex issue.

Brive’s English president, Simon Gillham, identified one key difference which has created greater depth in France. The Gallic domestic game is more joined-up.

‘The Top 14 and Pro D2 (second division) meet as 30 and that is the main, huge difference with English rugby,’ he said. ‘When we vote, we vote as 30. A lot of people in the Top 14 have been in Pro D2 and a lot of people in the Pro D2 have been in the Top 14, so there is real solidarity.’

Gillham emphasises the benefit of a long-standing broadcast partnership and the fact that all games in the top two divisions are shown on TV, from Thursday evening to Sunday evening, which in turn drives sponsorship. He identifies the rise of Vannes in Brittany as a symbol of how French rugby is in expansion mode and rails against the notion of creating a closed shop, as the Premiership are doing.

‘This idea of ring-fencing is anathema to me,’ he said. ‘I am the president of one of the biggest candidates for relegation from the Top 14 every year, but I wouldn’t change the promotion and relegation system for love or money, because there is something to play for at every level. If we didn’t have relegation, we wouldn’t have anyone in our stadium after about February each season.

‘The one season we got well clear of the relegation area and we weren’t in the top six, our crowds dropped off in March and April. The season before, we had to beat Stade Francais in our last game to stay up and the place was full to the rafters. The whole week before, everyone in the town, all the shops and the restaurants put out black and white flags. Everyone was a Briviste – and we won. That is another great memory. If that had been a dead-rubber game, who gives a s***?’ 

The Gallagher Premiership could learn lessons by looking at what the French have done

The Gallagher Premiership could learn lessons by looking at what the French have done

The diversity drive has been another positive feature of the French game in recent years, with clubs and the national team increasingly reflecting the country’s ethnic mix. Gillham saluted the two giant Parisian clubs for leading that process, saying: ‘Racing and Stade Francais have both done great work in bringing in kids from those areas in the north of Paris who are the descendants of immigrants. These are people who would never normally have come into rugby but that is happening now.

‘The sport here is much more socially diverse now. The guy who captains Brive is called Said Hireche, whose parents are Algerian immigrants. He’s from the western suburbs of Paris – from a very tough town – and he got into rugby almost by accident, but now he is such a role model for our club, which is in a real rugby heartland. Fifteen years ago, you’d only get white kids playing for Brive.’

Up in Normandy, former England scrum-half Richard Hill has overseen Rouen’s emergence as a rising force far from the traditional rugby heartlands – after coaching spells at Bristol and Worcester. 

He identified a cap on squad sizes as a factor driving French players to seek contracts in Pro D2 and even in a new professional, national league swiftly created to serve as a bridge from the amateur game below, for clubs making the step up. The talent is spread out and players are able to play.

While the Championship in England is barely surviving on financial rations, the French equivalent is now an attractive, competitive proposition. 

Pro D2 games such as this one between Perpignan and Carcassonne are televised

Pro D2 games such as this one between Perpignan and Carcassonne are televised 

‘Each Pro D2 club has to have an academy so you have to put the resources in place to identify and develop talent in your area,’ said Hill. ‘In England, there aren’t many Championship clubs with academies. Here, each Top 14 and Pro D2 club have an academy, so there are 30 of them around the country.

‘We had someone like Gabin Villiere, who came from a little club in Normandy, worked with me for six years and he has gone on to play for France. Now we have our own academy, we are attracting the best youngsters in Normandy. Lots more kids want to play rugby. They want to be in the Rouen team. We now have Under 14s, Under 16s and Under 18s playing in the top league in France, so hopefully we will have more Gabin Villieres coming through from Normandy.

‘A lot of Pro D2 sides have great stadiums with good pitches and there is a stipulation that each club must have a proper gym on site too. There are normally big crowds, in nice stadiums, with good surfaces and all matches are on TV, so it is just a more motivating environment for young players.’

It isn’t just French players being drawn into the country’s second tier. There may be a cross-Channel exodus in the offing. ‘Here at Rouen I’ve got Dean Adamson, who was Bedford’s top try-scorer for years and years,’ said Hill. ‘I’ve got Shane O’Leary, who came from Nottingham and Peter Lydon who was at Esher, and I’ve just signed Shay Kerry from Jersey.

‘Because of what’s happening in the Championship, I’ve got so many players from the Championship who want to come here and all the English players who come seem to enjoy the rugby experience here. In Pro D2, every single game is tough. The English model looks very sad in comparison.’

After six years at mighty Clermont Auvergne, former Bath and England full-back Nick Abendanon opted to sign for Vannes and is glad to have joined such an upwardly-mobile club and league. The 34-year-old believes that the French clubs do a good job of nurturing talent through their ‘Espoirs’ teams and lamented the cross-Channel funding disparity.

Gabin Villiere's emergence for France shows the depth of talent in their domestic game

Gabin Villiere’s emergence for France shows the depth of talent in their domestic game 

‘Funding for the game just isn’t on the same level in the UK,’ he said. ‘The French federation puts a lot of money into the lower leagues, whereas in England it is basically the Premiership and that’s it. We’ve seen the struggles they’re having in the Championship.

‘Here, every Pro D2 game is televised, whereas the Championship is not shown on television. That just shows where they are trying to take the game in France, compared to where the English game is at the lower level.’

Cornish Pirates’ shock victory over Saracens last Saturday was a timely reminder that there is rugby life below the top flight here, but Abendanon added: ‘It is very sad to see the state the Championship in England is now in. Even before the pandemic, the RFU announced that they were cutting funding which, to me, is the wrong way to go. The Championship should be seen as a breeding ground for young English players to get scouted by Premiership clubs.

‘Here, a lot more Top 14 clubs are looking at the Pro D2 for playing talent. At Vannes, there are easily seven or eight guys who could play in the Top 14 and four of them have already been signed up to make that move next season. They have the stage to perform, with the games in Pro D2 being televised and receiving good coverage in the French newspapers.’

Joe Worsley was a World Cup-winner with England who has gone on to forge a coaching career in France – at Bordeaux for several years before joining Castres, after a stint working with Georgia. The ex-Wasps back-rower identified a greater connection between French clubs and the towns and regions they represent, than exists in most cases here, while also noting how the Gallic game has been enhanced by the rise of big-city sides with spending clout, such as Bordeaux and Lyon.

In addition, the balance of power across the Channel is with the clubs, whereas here it is the RFU who hold sway. ‘Here, the LNR (representing the clubs) is a lot stronger than the English clubs, but the federation is a lot weaker than the RFU,’ said Worsley. ‘In England, the money goes to the union and they use it to help fund the sport, whereas here the power is with the clubs.

‘The LNR is relatively well governed. The club presidents are all powerful and normally the person who becomes president of the LNR is quite savvy business-wise. And there is more support from towns, councils and the government in France. Bordeaux got given a 34,000-seat stadium and their revenue now – well, when there’s no COVID – is over half-a-million per game. That is why they’ve been able to grow massively. In England, that is not going to happen.’

Abendanon insisted that it is not all ‘sunshine and rainbows’ in French rugby. Problems remain. The system is not perfect. The national team are still not given the same time with their players as England’s coaches have – or anything like the central control that exists in Ireland or New Zealand.

France's national side doesn't get as much time together as England's setup with Eddie Jones

France’s national side doesn’t get as much time together as England’s setup with Eddie Jones

When asked if a virtuous circle had been created, to ensure future success for French clubs and the Test team alike, Worsley also identified on-going ‘handbrakes’, such as an over-long season and the often slow pace of the game in the Top 14, compared to international rugby. 

But France’s Under 20s have won the last two junior World Cups and the senior side now have a strong coaching staff and a more professional set-up capable of capitalising on the development of this golden generation.

With a home World Cup in 2023, there is a clear, common goal uniting club and country. ‘There may be battles between the federation and the league, but the one thing that everyone wants like mad is for France to win the World Cup,’ said Gillham. ‘That is pulling everyone together.’

Sadly, there is not the same sense of everyone pulling together for the common good in English rugby, and not the same sense of momentum and growth. The contrast is brutal.

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