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Top 14's integrity hanging by a thread
Ian Moriarty
May 12, 2009
France head coach Marc Lievremont faces the media, France press conference, London, England, March 16, 2009
France coach Marc Lievremont is struggling against a broken relationship between club and country © Getty Images
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Players/Officials: Byron Kelleher | Marc Lievremont
Tournaments/Tours: French Top 14 | French Top 14

And so it continues. Just when it seemed as though common sense might break out between the stakeholders of French rugby, up stepped Ligue National de Rugby (LNR) president Pierre-Yves Revol with another homer. French rugby fans can look forward to an additional weekend of Top 14 action next season but the French Championship, the players and inevitably the rugby will be the losers as a result of this decision.

At the heart of last week's announcement by Revol is the decision to create a new playoff between the clubs that finish third and sixth. It will mean that in theory, a club that finishes in sixth place after 26 league encounters will still be in with a chance to win the title.

"This will maintain the interest of spectators in the Top 14 for longer," maintained the LNR president. He's right of course, to a degree. Come the end of February or March next year, there will probably two camps for supporters to put themselves in; the race for the title or the battle against relegation. Just take a look at this year's Championship. Until last weekend, the race for the top six spots (and Heineken Cup qualification) was still being fought between seven clubs and the relegation battle was a catfight between five.

But the LNR's new ruling fails to address the fundamental problem with the Top 14. Next season, just like this one or any other in recent years, the same three or four clubs will make up the top few spots. And the race for fifth and sixth place will be a competition for the best of the rest just like those clubs that are currently battling for a place in the Heineken Cup. Why? Because the Top 14 will continue to be a competition based on attrition and one that only a handful of clubs can afford the resources to win.

And there's more. In order to fit the new weekend in, the LNR have decided to demote three Top 14 programmes to weekends reserved for the national team: two in the autumn with games clashing against France-Samoa and France-New Zealand and one during the Six Nations (France-Italy). And faced with the prospect of finishing the season on the 29th of May in order to conform to the Woking Accords, clubs will begin the season a week earlier on August 15th without their international players as a result of the summer tours in June.

Marc Lièvremont has been one of a number of voices calling for a reduction of clubs in the top flight in an effort to reduce the strain on France's top players and improve the quality of the French Championship at the same time. The 40 year-old coach has been under huge pressure following another poor Six Nations display by his charges but he can only take some of the blame for the woes that continue to plague the game in France.

Effectively, Lièvremont's hands are tied by what seems like the complete lack of a working relationship between the clubs and the national team. It was witnessed at first hand in this year's Six Nations when the LNR scheduled the Toulouse - Clermont game five days before France's clash against Wales - midway through the competition. Toulouse and former All Black scrum-half Byron Kelleher conceded recently that the length of the season had to be changed.

"If France wants to be the best team in the world, and they have the talent for it, they will have to change because they play too many matches in a season. Top 14, Heineken Cup and international matches - it's impossible to do that. There are too many rugby games in France," he said.

With the LNR seemingly hell-bent on keeping the Top 14 in its new form for the next few years, something will have to give. That could be mean changes for the Heineken Cup, which has grown in popularity in France in recent years. Several weeks ago, FFR president Pierre Camou gave an interview in which he intimated that entering regional or provincial sides in European competition could be the answer to that thorny question of better managing resources.

"Both (the Heineken and Challenge) Cups are in important element, because they are an intermediary competitions that challenges players with an international standard," said Camou, in an interview with Sud Ouest. "Cork and Limerick still exist but hasn't hindered what Munster has become. And Munster isn't too bad at all, is it? I'm from one region, the Basque-Landes, which provides four clubs to the Top 14. I'd like to work with these clubs to construct an intermediary stage so they could continue to do what they are doing without exhausting their resources in European competition."

The idea of Biarritz and Bayonne players representing a unified Basque team might appeal to those attracted to its cultural significance but it's doubtful that it could work in reality given the decades of antipathy built up between the two sides. Nor would it help to free up the current fixture congestion unless some Top 14 games were played on European weekends. It's also likely that the super-clubs of the Top 14: Toulouse, Stade Francais, Clermont Auvergne and Perpignan would stay as just that in the Heineken Cup, given their ability to sustain relatively successful campaigns in both competitions.

Put simply, none of the stakeholders in French rugby are prepared to look beyond their own self-serving agendas. Pierre Camou has honourable intentions but he doesn't have the power to bring the clubs to the bargaining table. And without some form of consensus, the status quo will remain: a weak national side, a two tier Championship and too many games.

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