A quick look at the Top14 table will tell you one very important thing. It tells you that several of the Top14’s big boys are outside the top 4.
Toulon, Clermont, and Stade Francais are just a few of the teams finding themselves in less-than-ideal situations. To be clear, this is not a bash of French rugby, but rather an examination.
There are several contributing factors to this: squad over-rotation, ageing players, and the rise of other teams.
In squads with incredible depth, like Toulon, or Clermont, there is little squad continuity. This is especially true with Toulon, who have immense depth in all positions.
Bryan Habana, Semi Radradra, Chris Ashton, JP Pietersen, Hugo Bonneval, and Josua Tuisova are a few in a talented backline. With just three positions available, it is unlikely that any of them could get consistent game time.
This list only accounts for back three players, with similar levels of depth in other positions. Centres include Mathieu Bastareaud, Ma’a Nonu, Malakai Fekitoa, and Francois Trinh-Duc.
When a team has several high-profile players that they have to field, competition becomes futile. You have to pick-and-choose which players to play. When this happens, teams fail to build cohesion and chemistry. With this lack of understanding, furthered by language barriers, teams are put at a disadvantage. This; however, is not a uniquely French problem. There are plenty of English teams full of foreign exports, but not to the same level.
Furthermore, there is not so much of a language barrier. With a French league, more players are forced to learn French. Whereas most players do not have to learn English. Players from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, usually speak English.
Ageing players are another problem that is only encountered by the French. Older players play in all leagues, but many travel to France for a final pay-day.
Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, and Jannie du Plessis are just a few elder statesmen in the Top14. The squad age in these squads is consistently higher than those in any other league. A majority of players in the Top14 are in their late-20s and early-30s.
Every league has veterans in it, but teams like Saracens, Glasgow and Exeter have few players over the age of 30. This is not to say that these men are declining, but they create a different dynamic in the squad. These men have to be substituted during the 80 minutes, making the replacements completely predictable.
While it is fair to say that they have the wonderful job of mentoring youth is it really necessary to pay them hundreds of Euros to do so? Furthermore is it worth having these players in the squad?
If teams wanted to be competitive both domestically and internationally, they need younger players. Optimally, these players are in their mid-20s, when they are the height of their athletic abilities.
The Growth of other French Clubs
The final thing that accounts for this slide is the growth of other major French teams. La Rochelle, Montpellier, Castres, and Toulouse are just a few to reach the top 4. This is why the slide could even be considered accidental.
Key signings have made Montpellier into a behemoth of French rugby. With talents like Aaron Cruden, Louis Picamoles, and Jan Serfontein, they have been magisterial all season. They have had big wins over Clermont, Glasgow ad Toulon, making them European juggernauts. La Rochelle have shown great improvement in recent years, putting them in contention for the league this year. With big players all over the field, they are a force to be reckoned with. Castres are the surprise package of the Top14 this year. Currently, in fourth place, they were as high as second this year. They are known for beating up big boys like La Rochelle, Racing 92 and Toulon.
With all of these things considered, is it really a surprise that they are sliding down the table? Is there a severe underlying problem with French rugby?
Author: Andrew Weaver
My name is Andrew, I live in New York City, USA, and I play second and back row for Play Rugby USA. When I am not playing rugby, I’m drawing, or enjoying a good book. Thankfully, I was able to navigate through the other American sports and land on rugby.