French dominance here to stay
October 19, 2010
Vilimoni Delasau outmuscles a Dragons tackler © Getty Images
He might be known for his rather glum expression on the sideline but Toulouse boss Guy Noves wore a wry smile on his face as he and his team waited for their bus outside the Rodney Parade clubhouse on Saturday night.
Away victories are what separates the wheat from the chaff in the Heineken Cup and although Toulouse failed to get a bonus-point against the Dragons, Noves' mind would have already turned towards domestic matters, with Perpignan the visitors to the Stade Ernest Wallon this Saturday.
Yet Noves will not have been the only Top 14 coach with a feeling of mission accomplie after the first two rounds. Biarritz, like Toulouse, are in pole position in their pool while Clermont, Perpignan and Castres' interest in the competition will continue into December at the very least. Only the two debutants, Toulon and Racing Metro, look as though a place in the knockouts could be beyond them, despite both having won a game apiece.
Interestingly, the feel-good trend extends to the Amlin Challenge Cup too, a competition about as welcome in the French calendar as a visit from the mother-in-law. Four of the five pools are headed by French sides, with only Bourgoin looking down and out already.
So is this just an aberration or are we, as some clubmen in the Aviva Premiership would have you believe, looking at a continuation of a trend that last year manifested itself in an all-French final? The portents, if you look at the Top 14 over the last few seasons, are clear: France's top teams are moving clear from all but a few select British and Irish teams.
This may not mean a French winner of the Heineken Cup each year but what it almost certainly points to is an increased interest by Top 14 clubs in Europe. And while the French Championship might remain the be-all and end-all for the majority of French clubs, a growing number are reaching the point where their squads are allowing them to compete on both fronts - a luxury that has always been restricted to Toulouse.
Money is, as ever, at the crux of the story but the rising tide of cash in French rugby has broadened the base of the clubs at the top, and more importantly challenged the status quo. From the early 90s until Perpignan's victory in 2008, the French Championship winners' circle involved just three clubs: Toulouse, Stade Francais and Biarritz. And to a large degree, it's been those clubs that have come to represent the Top 14 on the European stage.
Last year however, was the year of the newbie. Toulon and Racing Metro, bankrolled by millionaire owners, have been muscling in on the territory normally reserved for the big three plus Perpignan and Clermont, and the difference has been telling. There have been different winners of the French Championship for the last five years, something that hasn't happened since the amateur era.
True, neither Racing nor Toulon have looked convincing so far in the Heineken Cup but you'd have to put that down to a combination of inexperience and priorities. For both, until the Top 14 is in the bag, the Bouclier de Brennus will remain the Holy Grail, as it was with Clermont Auvergne until last May.
Clermont's win against Perpignan was wonderful news for a club that had been so close on so many occasions and the denizens of ERC headquarters must have positively delirious when they saw the result. It meant that Vern Cotter's side would join an expanding group of Top 14 sides who could now take the Heineken Cup as seriously as domestic matters, as Toulouse and Biarritz have shown in the past. Good news for the competition, sponsors et al.
Still, it bears reminding that Clermont chose last weekend's match against Racing to rest many of their big names ahead of a busy few weeks in the Top 14. But their commitment to the European cause will be proven in December, in their back-to-back matches against the Joe Schmidt-coached Leinster.
So who would bet against a similar number of French teams in knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup as last year? Well right now, it looks pretty likely. Toulouse and Biarritz could wrap up qualification before Christmas, while both Clermont and Perpignan are in good shape but have battles ahead to ensure qualification from tough pools. And what of plucky Castres? The invisible men of French rugby were robbed of a win at Franklins Gardens before letting the Blues leave Stade Pierre Antoine with a losing bonus point so as ever, a win on the road will be vital if they want to progress.
Toulon captain Joe Van Niekerk admitted his side had learned a lot from their hammering from Munster at Thomond Park and while his team will now put all focus on domestic matters, Toulon like Racing Metro, are a team that look certain to have a bright future at Heineken level. Both sides have the financial commitments in place to stay at the top end of French rugby and a bit of experience and the odd Top 14 title could make either serious European challengers within a few years. The Magners and Aviva sides better get busy: increased French participation and interest in the Heineken Cup is a reality.
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