New frontiers, old problems
April 12, 2011
Perpignan fans show their colours in Barcelona © Getty Images
So, another new destination has been added to the European club rugby map following the historic forging of Catalan ties over the French and Spanish borders. If last weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-final in Barcelona did anything, it reinforced the thirst (no pun intended) that a growing number of French fans have for this competition.
It was, of course, the home side's day in the sun, but for all the talk about Perpignan's move south from its French enclave, there's no doubt the impact would have been lessened had Toulon been winners on Saturday. Cultural fusion or not, the feel-good factor that comes with winning will mean many more days in the sun for Perpignan in Barcelona.
Their coach, Jacques Brunel, agreed: "Of course it was a success but it was a success because we won," he said after the match. The idea of bringing rugby to their Catalan cousins was first raised by former USAP president Marcel Dagrenat ten years ago and while the club would have welcomed the estimated €400,000 that came from selling out the 55,000 capacity Olympic Stadium, a loss would have taken much of the gloss from what was in reality a huge marketing coup for the club.
It didn't hurt the reputation of the Heineken Cup too much either. An estimated 40,000 fans crossed the border on the morning of the clash and the toll plazas outside of Barcelona resembled giant parking lots for cars festooned with blood and gold Catalan colours and French number plates. To this casual observer, it seemed as though they were there to support a Catalan national side rather than just Perpignan.
It certainly fired the imagination of French Federation president Pierre Camou, who on Saturday raised the possibility of replacing the Top 14 clubs in the Heineken Cup with provinces from 2014. It's not the first time that Camou, who hails from the Basque country, has irritated the French clubs and the LNR with what he sees as a potential solution to the crammed French fixture list.
Under his initiative, Top 14 clubs would form regional or provincial sides and use these to compete in the Heineken Cup, theoretically reducing the strain on the calendar. Could such a scenario work? Well, Camou has long been an admirer of the Irish provincial system and believes something similar may succeed.
Unlike in Ireland, where the provinces have developed over a thousand years of history, the regions in France are effectively a modern post revolution construct, built to blur cultural differences and dampen regional power in France. That would mean no unified Basque side but a Cote Basque-Landes or Aquitaine team instead. Toulouse and Castres would form a Midi Pyrenees side rather than a Languedoc team. Paris might be a bit more straightforward but what of the Catalans? Form a Languedoc Roussillon side with the traditionally Occitan Montpellier? Tell that to the 40,000 who travelled to Barcelona last weekend.
In reality, Camou's idea is nothing more than an attempt to stifle the clubs' power at a time when their popularity is outflanking that of the national team. Speaking to l'Equipe recently, Toulouse president René Bouscatel branded the idea suicidal and revealed that upwards of 30% of the club's finances are now derived from European competition. For Bouscatel, the answer has been about reducing the number of sides in the Top 14 to 12, a suggestion that continues to be ignored by LNR president Pierre-Yves Revol.
Camou has suggested that only two or three French clubs are, at the moment, financially secure and his idea might have merit from that point of view. The Top 14 will gradually become the preserve of big city teams, as evidenced by the relegation of Bourgoin this season and the probable promotion of Lyon. While it's tragic to see Bourgoin go down to join Lourdes, Beziers and the other legendary clubs whose profile and lack of commercial firepower no longer fits in the French Championship, it is a fact of life of the system they are part of.
Instead of looking at Ireland and at provinces that have had representative teams in rugby for over a century, perhaps he should take a wander down the M4 corridor to Wales and see the result of forcing teams to merge beyond their traditional boundaries. It's not Camou's fault that the French state effectively destroyed their historic provinces 200 years ago but you have to learn to work with what you have. As it stands, many of the Top 14 clubs are already de-facto regions and are becoming more so with every passing year.
The FFR have to realise that if they want a decent calendar, access to French players, limited numbers of foreigners playing in France and so on, the only way forward will be to work with Top 14 clubs, not try and destroy occasions like last Saturday.
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