The results during the first two rounds of this season’s Heineken Cup were a clear indicator that the Pro12 League, sponsored by RaboBank, has become a strong league in European Rugby. Just how strong remains to be seen – possibly by season’s end – but evidence-based assessments suggest that it is right up there with France’s Top 14 and England’s Premiership competitions.
What it lacks for comparison with either competition is glamour and major media hype. Possibly the reason that it has not received the latter is because of the absence of French and English players and both of those Nations provide the largest body of Rugby Union writers in the Northern Hemisphere.
Having scrolled the playing lists of the Pro12 Clubs, one will struggle to find any French players, and despite the proximity and common language, only a dozen or so English-born players are listed out of the 450 or so players in the twelve Pro12 squads. Even some of these players, such as Ben Morgan of Scarlets, or the Edinburgh pair of Chris Leck and Sean Cox, are on their way to qualification for Wales and Scotland respectively.
So why this anomaly? Discrimination? National rugby policy? Abuse of the majority? Or just plain madness?
The relative absence of English players is particularly surprising. Consider the number of South African, Australian, New Zealand or even Zimbabwean players – all of whom share a common language with 10 of the Pro12 teams. Consider the number of Argentinean players, admittedly many sharing a common heritage with the Italian clubs, but equally found in Scottish, Welsh and Irish clubs. England has more than 120,000 adult rugby players, more than Scotland, Wales and Ireland combined. France has more than 350,000 registered rugby players, admittedly not all of them adults, but even the adult playing population is estimated to exceed 200,000.
From review of some of the writing and websites of the French game, the reasons do not appear to be economic. French Clubs in D2, and even some in the Top 14, pay very few players basic salaries of more than €4,000 per month i.e. less than €50,000 p.a. and frequently the tariff is more like €35,000 p.a. Certainly, at the top of the scale a few players in France are paid a king’s ransom. Sebastien Chabal was reputedly paid in excess of €1m in season 2009-10 according to respected sports paper L’Equipe, this being his combined income from Racing Metro and France. Despite the fact that he is well past his best, he’s highest paid French rugby player – a combination of a well-timed run of form that coincided with a home World Cup and his readily identifiable look.
Jonny Wilkinson, Sonny Bill Williams, Daniel Carter, Carl Hayman and Juan Hernandez are all supposed to have earned similar figures to that of Chabal for different periods of time in the French game – but these are the exception. The reality is that there may be many players playing in French rugby who would make a serious mark in Pro12 rugby, who could be afforded, but who seem to be ignored. What role do agents play on this stage? Is there in reality any player agency which deals with each of the different jurisdictions with an even hand?
For the past decade, there have been rumours that matters such as tax residency and image rights played a major part in the ability of French Clubs to attract the top international players. However, in the past 18 months, French sportsmen and women have complained that the change in legislation concerning image rights has greatly reduced the attractiveness of residing and playing sports in France.
Consider the number of major individual French sports stars who reside in Monaco: despite their international lifestyle, can it be that they do so purely for the benefit of the weather, the Grand Prix and the availability of great big parties on great big boats?
Compare the position of the apparent earning capacity between soccer stars in England and France. No great French club has emerged in the past ten years. No occidental magnate has purchased a French club with the objective of creating a European superpower – although one would have assumed it would be less competitive than the English equivalent. Since Bernard Tapie’s ill-fated foray into Olympique Marseille, no French clubs have threatened the hegemony of English, Spanish, German and Italian super-clubs. Why?
Reading the French rugby press, the answers are more subtle. They have little knowledge of and less interest in the Pro12 league. Certainly, they admire the top clubs like Leinster, Munster, Cardiff and, to a lesser extent, Ospreys. Certainly, they acknowledge the success that those clubs seem to enjoy annually in the H Cup. But nationally, France does not now and – for the past thirty years at least – never has feared Irish, Scottish or even Welsh rugby, and thus they do not believe that they have anything to learn from our “local” league.
More than language, more than weather, more than life-style, this is probably the key determinant in the paucity of French players in our Pro12 League. It is possibly the same key-point with English players. Despite the relative lack of success of Premiership Clubs [other than Leicester and Wasps] in European competition and the regular, relative, failure of their national team [other than in the RWC 2003], English players and coaches do not consider that there is anything to learn from their Welsh, Irish or Scottish cousins and they consider that the admission of two Italian franchises to the Pro12 proves this point.
So, if like the author you were hoping that the relative success in the first two rounds of the European Cup, sitting alongside the Welsh RWC11 performance and the tournament-changing Irish defeat of Australia, would change the attitudes of a lifetime, dream on. Our French and English brethren still consider that our Pro12 league is a local, second-division affair, a veritable league of its own and not to be confused with the real stuff taking place in Premiership or Top 14 week by week.
A little done and a lot more to do. If Pro12 could produce 50% of the quarter-finalists and semi-finalists in the Heineken Cup for a couple of seasons in a row, heads might start to turn. But the reality is probably that Ireland and Wales need to start winning back-to-back championships, maybe even back-to-back Grand Slams, before anybody – player or spectator – in England or France casts an admiring glance at the Pro12 League as a hot-bed of world club rugby.