The multi-national tricolour
May 15, 2013
Wesley Fofana will be one of the few French players on show in Saturday's Heineken Cup final © Getty Images
With only four French regulars likely to be involved in this weekend's all French Heineken Cup final, would national coach Philippe Saint-André be better off watching the Catalan Dragons' Super League clash with Castleford Tigers instead? Both games kick off at 5pm on Saturday evening and chances are there may well be more French-born players on display at Stade Gilbert Brutus. To boot, Saint-André could do worse than checking out one of the hottest French prospects of either code - Catalan fullback Morgan Escaré.
France's national coach will of course be glued to his TV, just like millions of his countrymen, watching events unfold in Dublin. He will be hoping that Thomas Domingo, Benjamin Kayser, Morgan Parra and Wesley Fofana come through unscathed in what promises to be a fascinating encounter at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. With a visit to New Zealand just around the corner (the first Test kicks off on June 8, one week after the Top 14 final), Saint-André will have the rosary beads out in expectation of what will be a gruelling few weeks for his top players.
Has there ever been such a large disconnect between France's club teams and the international side they are supposed to serve? This is the fourth time the Heineken Cup final will be an all-French affair, and while this weekend's clash features two teams new to this stage of the competition, neither could have been regarded as a shock in getting there.
Clermont and Toulon have been the form sides in Europe this season, with the former once again proving their pedigree of being the best side to never win a Heineken Cup.
Most Clermont supporters and the vast majority of neutrals will hope that they put that particular slogan to bed this weekend, although one wonders what Saint-André would prefer. The former flying wing endured a disastrous Six Nations campaign, culminating in France's worst finish since 1969. Injuries, retirements, poor form and some questionable selections all played their part, but the French coach could argue his tenure has been hampered by an ever-dwindling pool of international players to select from.
Toulouse, the Heineken Cup's standard-bearer and the side that has most consistently provided the backbone of French teams in the professional era, has been in decline for a couple of seasons but are still the likeliest to provide the most numbers when Saint-André unveils his selection for the first All Blacks test in a few weeks' time.
Historically, the club always attempted to keep its number of French players on the roster at over 60%, even if it meant 'buying in' proven French talent. But even this policy has come under pressure in recent seasons as the number of young French players (under 23) plying their trade in the Top 14 has dropped significantly. Judging by their form this season, their replacements have hardly set the world on fire.
The same cannot be said of the imports at Clermont and Toulon. If either win their first Heineken Cup this weekend, they will do so with a multitude of nationalities, and just a small core of French-born players. Between them, Clermont and Toulon fielded a total of eight French qualified starters in their two semi-finals, and that number is likely to be something similar on Saturday.
Should any of this matter? A pragmatic man to the core, Saint-André knew what he was taking on when he signed up to become France coach after Rugby World Cup 2011. He raised eyebrows in recent days when he suggested that there could be a number of 'foreign' players who make their France debuts this summer.
Morgan Parra will pull the strings for Clermont © Getty Images
Montpellier Number 8 Alex Tulou, Clermont prop Daniel Kotze and winger Noa Nakaitaci, Racing back row Bernard Le Roux and his team mate Virimi Vakatawa could all be named in Saint-André's 35 man squad for the Summer tour. Another South African, Castres' Antonie Claassen, will be hoping to add to the three caps he won for France during the recent Six Nations campaign. In selecting them, Saint-André will merely be attempting to pick the best players available to him. Nothing wrong with that, you might say, but what does it say about the Top 14?
Surely one of the positives about having 14 teams in France's top competition is that it should create enough space for the cream to rise to the top. Instead, thanks to the ever-increasing pressure on clubs, the opposite has happened.
For example, none of the top three points scorers in the Top 14 this season were French although two French players did make up the top five (Camille Lopez of Bègles and Jérôme Porical of Stade Francais). In addition, only three French-born players made up the top ten try scorers in the Top 14; Wesley Fofana, Vincent Clerc and Marc Andreu should take a bow.
Indeed, if you were to look at the players who made the most appearances in their particular position this season in the Top 14, only three were French; Romain Terrain of Perpignan, Thomas Combezou of Montpellier and Baptiste Chedal-Bornu of Mont de Marsan.
Speaking to the Sunday Times a few weeks ago, Saracens owner Nigel Wray gave his vision of where rugby might head in the not too distant future. "I would guess that rugby will become like football but without all the noughts," admitted Wray. "Somebody, maybe the Emir of Somewhere, will look at rugby and come in. It is a bit cheaper than owning Manchester United."
Rugby union's version of the English Premier League is already here with us, it seems. Philippe Saint-André's detractors would do well to remember it.
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