A disaster in waiting
January 17, 2012
Mourad Boudjellal casts a forlorn figure © Getty Images
The war of words between Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal and the LNR cast a shadow over last weekend's Heineken action but it could spell disaster for the Provencal club.
Okay, so it wasn't just the pretty average French performances in Europe that kept the Heineken Cup off the back page of the French press at the weekend. First we had the news that Brive and Limoges are to enter into talks about a merger of their senior teams, which could in effect create France's first quasi-regional side. Then it was the news that Bayonne had sacked Jean-Pierre Elissalde after less than a month in charge and that Phillipe Sella would return to the game next season as director of rugby at Agen. But it's been the outbreak of war between Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal and the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR) that's been the story hogging the newsprint.
Toulon may be in the Amlin Cup these days but it seems club owner Mourad Boudjellal can't stop drawing attention to himself. Boudjellal has been summoned to appear in front of an LNR disciplinary panel on January 25 after making outrageous comments after last weekend's loss to Clermont Auvergne.
He told a shocked assembled media last Saturday week: "I had my first refereeing sodomy in the  semi-final against Clermont. I've just had my second tonight. It appeared to hurt the first time but it was just as bad this time. We will review the images not on Youtube but on Youporn."
At face value, his comments are as crude as it gets, and his already fraught relationship with the LNR will probably result in him getting the book thrown at him. It could also spell disaster for Toulon, who are currently rumoured to be occupied with buying up another dollop of British rugby talent at the moment - props Gethin Jenkins and Andrew Sheridan. But Boudjellal, the comic book millionaire who sees himself as a maverick and a bulwark against what he terms the "superior interests" in the game, has pledged a high noon showdown with the game's administrators in France.
"I decide what I do. If they ban me, I'm off," he claimed at the weekend. For his part Boudjellal has maintained that his tirade wasn't an attack on referee Christophe Berdos but rather an attempt to open a debate up on the game of rugby as a whole and the interests that run it. Take refereeing for example: He believes we should have fully professional referees and it would be hard to find anyone who wouldn't agree with that viewpoint. The problem is that the Toulon owner believes the only way of getting anything done in rugby is by shock and awe and that's probably his duty to rid us of the evil incompetents. In fact, I'm pretty sure he's got a recording of Rio Bravo playing on a loop in his head, with Boudjellal acting out the role of John Wayne's character, Sheriff John T. Chance.
"I estimate I've invested more money than anyone in the Top 14," he told l'Equipe on Monday. "I feel as though I've legitimately got the right to ask the guys in the league to follow the correct level of refereeing and its structures. I want to remain in rugby, but only if the laws are equitable."
If the reaction of LNR President Pierre Yves Revol is anything to go by, the controversial Toulon owner will spend a lengthy spell watching his team from the comfort of his hotel suite on TV.
"I think that if the president of a prestigious club can express these sorts of opinions with impunity then the door is open for every sort of bad behaviour," said Revol. "I'm not a paragon of virtue, much less a teacher of morals, but for a very long time we have been able to regulate our passion internally.
"I maintain that Monsieur Boudjellal hasn't just insulted a referee but the whole of rugby."
And what of Toulon if all of this comes to pass? Boudjellal has always proclaimed that he'll walk when he decides to. There can be no doubting the impact it would have on Toulon however. The club may be in a much stronger position than they were before his arrival in 2007 but Toulon still rely massively on Boudjellal's largesse - estimates point to the tune of €1.5m per year. Currently lying third in the Top 14 and top of their pool in the Amlin, the club has made solid rather than spectacular progress since Bernard Laporte took over at the helm in November. Yet Boudjellal's exit would be a bombshell for a club that has yet to prove it can live with within its means.
Rugby, like other sports, is defined not just by its players but by its supporters and lawmakers too. That Boudjellal is undoubtedly a character, is clear, as is his track record for putting money where his mouth is. But that shouldn't give him free reign to besmirch rugby's good name, however many problems there are to overcome. Speak out, by all means Mourad, but stop letting your ego in the way of your argument.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
The Scotland coach enters his first Six Nations with at least one familiar face to look to for inspiration - Joe Schmidt. He chats to Tom Hamilton
Italy coach Jacques Brunel spoke to ESPN ahead of his final season as Italy coach and tells of his desire to experiment and evolve
"There's no bull with me, I just tell it straight." Tom Hamilton talks to Warren Gatland in an exclusive interview
With the retirement of Adam Jones, Welsh rugby says goodbye to a great player and one of its biggest personalities too, writes Tom Hamilton