If you were to look at the most recent Heineken Cup final you could rightly assume that French rugby is on a real high and that there are no concerns for the future form of their national team.
However, quite the opposite is happening on the international stage - France finished bottom of the 2013 Six Nations after only one win. The reason is a problem that our friends in the English Premier League are well aware of.
The EPL has been widely criticised as wealthy owners come in and buy clubs, fulfilling the old cliché 'money buys success'. The likes of Chelsea and Manchester City are examples of this. However to achieve this, with the added bonus of no salary cap, teams buy the best players from all around the world.
The huge influx of foreign players has left a shortage of home-grown domestic youngsters playing top-flight football. Stuart Pearce recently spoke about this exact problem after the England Under 21 side crashed out the European Championship - an exit which ultimately cost him his job.
These are facts that have recently resurfaced about this topic:
- Chelsea manager Gianluca Vialli was the first to name an all-foreign starting XI against Southampton on Boxing Day 1999.
- Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was the first to name an entire 16-man squad containing no British players for a Premier League game against Crystal Palace at Highbury in February 2005.
- England have not won a major trophy since 1966.
These facts give quite a damming view of the future of English football. But a problem that doesn't look like change any time soon when money looks like the main provocative.
Domestic players can be lost and left floundering in lower league clubs and others can be made to look a whole different class by playing in a more dominant and powerful team. This clearly has taken its toll on English football with the majority of the top six teams only fielding a few English players per game.
Double the money
This same issue is now sweeping through the French Top 14. With a salary cap that is nearly double the one in the Aviva Premiership (£8.6million in the Top 14 compared to £4.5m plus marquee player in the Premiership), French clubs can attract the best players from around the world. This mostly includes more juggernauts that would not look out of place in Lord of the Rings (just look at Opeti Fanua, 6ft 6in, 146kg). The forward pack that Toulon sent on the field against Saracens had to be one of the heaviest to take to a rugby field. However the pack only contained one Frenchman, Sebastien Bruno, now retired.
In the semi-finals Toulon and Clermont Auvergne had a combined total of only 10 French players in the starting line-ups, with Toulon only fielding four. It seems a shame that when these teams are carrying the torch for French rugby in Europe, only a third of the players are French. With Brian Habana and Drew Mitchell adding to the Galacticos of the rugby world, it seems all the French players will be driven out the squad.
The best quote I heard about French rugby was "France are predictably unpredictable", referring to a team that could turn up one day with a style of play with so much flare only produced by France.
Alas, in the most recent years of watching them play it has made for rather dull viewing. It seems flare has been wiped from the drawing board and replaced with a more direct power game. It is no coincidence the import of foreign giants and teams built around size has been the building blocks towards this.
With no cap on the number of foreign players, it is making it even harder for young players to break through. The likes of Toulouse centre (formerly of Toulon) Gael Fickou and Clermont's Jean-Marcellin Butin are seen as young players who can bring back the much needed flair to Les Bleus. Both players are highly regarded as future French stars, but are both being kept out of their club teams by imported players.
When looking at the style of the two finalists it's all built around power. They possess unrivalled power that cause seismic shifts whenever they collide. This kind of power however can give a false viewing for many players. For example Freddie Michelak has had his international career extended from recent club form, because he has an armchair ride behind his pack making for an easy life.
Not only is the French obsession with buying foreign players detrimental to themselves, but very advantageous to others - none more so than many involved in the RaboDirect Pro12. The Welsh seemed to have reaped the benefits of such a situation. As most of their Six Nations team are playing in France next season, it leaves great opportunities for younger and non-regular players to play a lot more competitive rugby. Not only are their players getting game time in one of the toughest leagues in the world, which can only be a good thing, but others now get the chance to represent their region in the Amlin and Heineken Cups: many more players are being exposed to the higher echelons of European rugby.
Things can be made confusing for international selectors, as seen in this year's Six Nations with France, and it's much tougher for players to perform outside of their now large comfort zone. Both make a recipe for disaster when building an international team, just look at the England football team. Unless changes are made, a cap on foreign players or reduced salary cap, I expect a bleak future for French rugby.
With such big names on show every week, it makes for a compelling and exciting league to watch. So from the outside all can look good and healthy but a deeper search can show many issues. Even though many complain about the salary, both in England and Wales, it's seems it will be the saving grace of our national teams.