An ever-growing divide
December 13, 2011
Luke Burgess' introduction to Toulouse is just one example of the Top 14 giants' spending power © Getty Images
A two speed Europe beckons, with England's clubs in danger of being left behind.
Nope, this hasn't suddenly become a column devoted to Europe's economic woes. Nor is this knee-jerk reaction based on the performances of Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne last weekend. Their victories over Harlequins and Leicester were superb in the context of the opposition but let's not get ahead of ourselves here; Tigers will be baying for blood at Welford Road this weekend and while Quins have a tough task at Stadium Toulouse, it's not entirely unthinkable that we could have a reverse in results.
It's also important to note where Quins are in terms of their evolution. As others have pointed out, the Twickenham based club have a young side with lots of potential and maybe their time is yet to come. There is a big but however. The problem is that the traditional way by which we measure a 'coming' team no longer applies to the top Euro sides. The last few months have provided irrefutable proof, if any was needed, that Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne and a handful of other clubs are pulling away from the rest in terms of resources, and that of the major nations, it is the English clubs who are most at risk of falling behind.
Not surprisingly, it's been Europe's largest and most successful club that continues to lead the way in regard to its use of resources. Like Munster, it was generally acknowledged that the Toulouse were reaching the end of an era in recent years, with a core of key players at or near retirement age. Toulouse's selection policy since the beginning of professionalism has been pretty clear-cut; the club has always believed that 33% of players should come through the club's Espoirs, 33% from other French clubs, and the final 33% non-French imports. This policy, thanks to this summer's transfers, has now gone out the window, the pressure to succeed seemingly too much for a club that has provided the backbone of France sides for the last 25 years.
The reasons? Toulouse are an old team in certain positions and simply don't have the players coming through. At 33, William Servat has been wonderful servant for his club but the rumours are that he's only been offered a one year extension beyond this season. The failure of previous prospects like Virgile Lacombe and Alberto Vernet Basualdo to break through like Servat had with Yannick Bru left the club with no option other than sign South African Gary Botha. The club did not want, nor did it have to wait for the next young big thing at hooker to emerge. They just went out and bought a readymade replacement.
The differences don't end there. The ease at which both Toulouse and Clermont have been able to dust down their World Cup warriors over the last month or so and pitch them gradually back into action also tells volumes about the ever increasing quality of their respective squads. Top 14 players have traditionally had it tough when it comes to the number of games they are expected to play but that seems to be changing for some. Toulouse for example, were able to send Thierry Dusautoir off on holidays to the Caribbean for a week on his return from the World Cup, an unimaginable prospect for the returning England internationals.
But this isn't just a case of France versus the rest. This week, a number of Top 14 club presidents are meeting to discuss amongst other things: the calendar, international player release and the Heineken Cup. More than ever before, there is now a clear divide between the wealthiest clubs - Toulouse, Clermont, the pretenders - Racing and Toulon - and those paddling to a standstill.
Biarritz and Perpignan, who between them won a smattering of French Championships during the noughties, find themselves in the same boat as the English clubs. With turnovers (c. €15m) roughly half of that at Toulouse, both clubs endured a torrid start to the Championship because they were seemingly unable to cope without their phalanx of internationals. That allowed more traditional French clubs such as Agen and Castres - with fewer players in New Zealand and with only one competition that matters - to concentrate resources on the Top 14 and pick up points.
Whatever about its merits in terms of increasing competition domestically, the Aviva Premiership salary cap remains a huge obstacle to the fortunes of English clubs in Europe but it is not the only obstacle. Of the top ten European teams in revenue terms, only Leicester Tigers come close in terms of the figures now being generated and that gap is liable to increase over the next ten years. In this strange paradoxical world, the Aviva Premiership is becoming like the LFP (French football league) to England's Premier League or La Liga. Salary cap or not, that difference in revenue generation will make a huge difference too.
This weekend, nearly 30,000 will pack into Toulouse's Municipal Stadium to see the return encounter with Quins while 45,000 are expected at Lansdowne Road to see Leinster take on Bath. But unlike Saracens, who attracted 40,000 to Wembley last weekend, both these clubs already average 16-19,000 without these 'marquee' games.
The ultimate irony is found in Guy Noves' oft quoted mantra that a league and Heineken double was "impossible". Thanks to that financial firepower, they've never been in a better position to achieve it.
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