In this article we will look at the scale of foreign imports in rugby. We will also find out if there are lessons to be learned from the scale and nature of imports found in football.
English football – too many imports
English football is always used as an example of the effect of foreign imports on domestic talent production. The perception is that so many foreign players come to England, there are not enough opportunities left for the best young English talent. Young players do not have the chance to reach their potential. They cannot compete fairly with fully formed and experienced players from abroad. Therefore the manager of the national team has underdeveloped players to work with and is unable to fashion a competitive team as a result. Warren Gatland recently warned English rugby of the dangers of imports using this very example.
But just how bad is English football?
On the weekend of 13/14 January 2018, 18 of the 20 Barclays Premier League teams played. The Manchester United v Stoke City game was held on a Monday and will not be counted towards this sample. 9 games took place over that weekend. 69 of the 198 starters (34%), were English. In the wider squads, 101 out of 324 players (31%), were English.
The national team is of course struggling. England are not seen as major contenders for European Championships or World Cups. The last time they even reached a semi-final was 1996, in the early days of the Premier League. Young English players are not getting many opportunities to play top-flight football. The talent is there, as England’s age group sides showed by winning the U18 European Championships and U20 World Cup in the summer of 2017. Many of those players are now playing in the second or third tier of English football. Instead of giving these boys a chance to prove themselves, clubs buy foreign players in their mid 20’s instead.
French football – a talent factory
The contrast with French football is stark. French football is actually very good at producing top talent. Many of the worlds best payers are French, and they are one of the favourites for the next World Cup. With the recent exception of Paris St Germain, their clubs are not able to financially compete with the very best in Europe. Their best players are regularly brought to the bigger leagues in England, Spain, Germany or Italy and as a result, the French national team mostly play abroad. In the last 12 months, the French football team have selected 37 players into their training squads. Of those, only 15 are based domestically. Several of those players still in France are also prominent transfer targets for clubs abroad, so the number of French-based players may fall further.
Having their best players abroad means there are spaces for French players to play in their own top league. Knowing their best players can be taken away after a good season, French clubs make sure there is a steady supply of new talent to fill the void. This also suggests that if countries like Georgia want to be competitive, they can export players to countries with a higher level of domestic rugby. Keeping players at home is not the only route to success, and French football is a good example.
French rugby – why don’t they produce players like their football counterparts?
There are 257 foreigners playing in the Top14, and 254 playing in ProD2. These numbers are not an exact science. Some of these players are potentially able to play for France one day through residency or having multiple eligibilities. They are counted as foreign because World Rugby states their primary nationality as not French. Equally some French players play in leagues abroad.
These 513 foreigners together represent around 40% of all the players in the Top14 and ProD2. In 5 of the 30 teams involved, French players are a minority. These numbers mean hundreds of young French players don’t have the chance to find out if they can cope with ProD2 or even Top14 rugby. A youngster in a French academy is most likely in competition with an import who is older and more experienced. The import will have been more expensively acquired so there is a financial pressure to give him game time. A young French player can find it hard to gain the trust of his coach.
In the very biggest games, French teams will likely play more of their imports. To illustrate the point, Montpellier played away to Exeter on 13/01/18 in a 5th round Champions Cup pool game where their quarter-final hopes hung in the balance. Montpellier’s squad is 49%, French. However, in the biggest game of the season so far, their starting lineup contained 7 South Africans and only 3 French players. Commentators joked that they can’t really be called a French team if only 20% of the players are French.
Not even English football has so few native players.
How about English rugby – it’s better there right?
Before completing the research for this article, I was under the impression that English rugby had far fewer imports than the Top14. I thought the RFU and Premier Rugby were doing a good job of enticing clubs to develop young English talent. They discount such players’ wages when calculating the salary cap, and provide funding for clubs with enough English qualified players in their matchday 23 on average. I believed more English talent was getting opportunities to play a higher standard of rugby than their French counterparts. I was wrong.
In the top leagues in England, the Premiership and Championship, there are 24 teams. They currently have 985 players between them, 451 in the Championship and 534 in the top flight. 161 Championship and 218 Premiership players are not English according to World Rugby. While 40% of players in the top two divisions in France aren’t French, 38% of players in the top two divisions in England aren’t English. Because there are 6 more teams, there are actually 175 more French players getting chances to play than English ones.
How does this compare to the Pro 14?
The Pro14 has far fewer imports than either English or French rugby. Of the 667 players in the league, only 104 (16%) are foreign. Many of those players are also eligible to play for the country they currently reside in. Interestingly there are only 3 foreign players at the Cheetahs and Southern Kings combined. One of those is South African but has been capped by Italy, and two are Namibian.
Another noticeable trait is the Pro14 teams retain larger squads than either the English or French teams. As a league, they have 133 more players than the Premiership and 71 more than the Top14. The Top14 sides are notorious for resting players even for big games. Leinster rested at least 7 first choice starters for their Christmas derby match with Munster. This is their biggest regular league game of the year. These factors combine to maximise the opportunity for young talent to gain experience.
What about the success of English age group teams compared to French ones?
Many people think the Top14 has too many imported players, and the Premiership does not. The numbers do not support this, so where does the perception come from? Perhaps because the English are mass producing a higher quality player than their French counterparts.
In the last 5 years, England have won 3 under 20 World Championships and reached the final on the other 2 occasions. They have also taken the 6 Nations title 3 times, including a 2016 Grand Slam. While it is hard to objectively judge the quality of talent, there is an unprecedented depth in English rugby right now. Last year Eddie Jones was able to select an extremely callow team which was still good enough to beat a full-strength Argentina 2-0 away from home.
French youth rugby is in no such place. High-quality players such as Baptiste Serin, Anthony Belleau and Damien Penaud are still coming through the system. However, they have only won 1 under 20 6 Nations title in the last 5 years and in 2017 were beaten 59-17 by their English counterparts. They have finished no higher than 4th at the under 20 World Championships.
Why are the English producing better players than the French then?
175 more French players than English ones get opportunities to play in their own top two divisions. Other factors must be causing the disparity in standards. Facilities, coaching, dual registration of players, willingness to play young talent, the Anglo-Welsh Cup, the A-League and the smaller salary cap are potential factors. It would take a detailed investigation, far beyond my resources here in the middle east, to find out.
I had previously assumed French squads were larger because of the higher salary cap. Actually, the average squad size in the Premiership is 45 while in the Top14 it is only 43. The Pro14 is larger than both with the average squad containing 48 players. I had assumed English players were more likely to play because their teams had fewer players, but this is clearly not true.
Are the French imports of a different standard to the English or Pro 14 ones?
Some say the French teams can buy whoever they want and have teams full of superstars. However, the imported talent in English club rugby is of a similar calibre to that in France or the Top14. Players like Matt Toomua, Taulupe Faletau, Francois Louw, Liam Williams, Faf de Klerk, Willie Le Roux, Telusa Veainu and Schalk Brits play in the Premiership. Are they inferior to the likes of Francois Steyn, Alivereti Raka, Scott Fardy or Niko Matawalu? I certainly don’t think so.
Are foreigners playing in the key positions?
The spine of a team is the hooker, number 8, scrum-half, fly-half and fullback. These players make all the key decisions in the game. Eddie Jones, when in charge of Japan, refused to pick foreign-born players in those positions as he wanted to develop native Japanese. Jones declared that foreign imports who qualified to play for the national team would still be welcome, but would play in other positions. He felt the character and soul of a team come from the players in the spine of the team. This policy was a key part of his plan to reconnect the Brave Blossoms with their rugby DNA.
Are French and English teams picking foreign players in those positions? On the weekend of 11/12/13 January 2018 7 English teams and 6 French sides played in the Champions Cup. The French sides had 30 positions available in the spine of their 6 teams. No team had a fully French spine. 11 places, 37% of the total, were taken up by foreign players. In contrast, of the 35 starting places in the spines of their teams, English clubs picked only 9 foreigners. Two sides, Harlequins and Saracens, had fully English spines.
The benefits of importing talent
Jamie George is now, at the age of 27, one of the best hookers in world rugby. He started all 3 tests on the recent Lions tour. He is also an excellent example of the benefits of learning from high-quality foreign imports. George came through the Saracens academy system and made his first-team debut in the 2009/2010 season. For 5 years he was understudy to two great South African hookers, John Smit and Schalk Britz. He has a positive outlook on this experience, explaining that he learned a lot from both players. In 2015, at the age of 25, he finally established himself as the first choice at Saracens and also made his England debut. This may seem like a slow progression, but George has actually played 167 Premiership games at the time of writing. Patience has paid off in his case.
Top foreign talent can be hugely beneficial to young players, providing a positive example and helping develop their skills. It is important to strike the right balance between these positives and giving young players a chance.
Where does the perception of French club rugby come from?
It is a subjective matter to judge the quality of talent coming through the system, and the opportunities being created for that talent to shine. The English system seems to produce more talent while actually having less opportunity to play. Perhaps the perception that the English are better off than the French is also related to the respective fates of their national teams.
In 1995, the last amateur season, France could argue their team was among the best in the world. They had been to New Zealand the year before and won both test matches. They reached the World Cup Semi Final and came 3rd in the old 5 Nations, above Ireland and Wales.
France are now only 9th in the world. They haven’t been a top team since the 2011 World Cup. The French have not finished in the top 2 teams in the 6 Nations since then, and in their most recent game they were lucky to escape with a home draw against Japan.
In contrast, in 1995 England were in a similar position to France. Will Carling’s team had won the Grand Slam and reached the World Cup semi-final. Now the situation could not be more different to France’s. England are 2nd in the world, and, barring significant upsets, will play the All Blacks at home in November with the number 1 position in the rankings up for grabs.
People say there are lots of imports in the Top14. Young French players are not getting chances to play. The numbers show there is an element of truth to these assertions. However, when compared with the much more successful English system, the number of imports and their quality doesn’t seem to be the real problem. The Pro14 seems to be doing a much better job of maximising the opportunities for players from its member countries. However, the mixed fortunes of Wales, South Africa, Italy, Scotland and Ireland show that creating opportunities is not enough. It is more important how the talent is brought through.
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 30 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I play for Abu Dhabi Harlequins 3rds and coach the U6s where my daughter plays. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I am new to sports writing, but why should the Quins lads be the only ones to suffer my ramblings!