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Nick Cain: French cash pile could bury international game

Toulon Ben Mowen’s decision to quit Australian rugby at the end of this year to take up a contract with a Top 14 club should have provided the IRB’s French chairman, Bernard Lapasset, with food for thought.  An incumbent Wallaby captain like Mowen decamping to France to play club rugby, thus ruling himself out of contention to represent Australia barely a year before the 2015 World Cup, cannot be considered a good result for the image of the international game.

In fact, it is a shocker, because back rower Mowen, who is still in his pomp at 29, has recently returned to the Brumbies having led Australia to a near unbeaten autumn tour of Europe. This involved wins over Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy after their opening loss to England, restoring morale and putting the Wallabies back on their feet following their defeat in the summer series against the 2013 Lions and their Southern Hemisphere Championship slump.

Mowen has said his decision to turn his back on the Wallabies, and the World Cup, has been taken mainly for family reasons, namely spending more time with wife and young daughter. He said that having to spend seven months globe-trotting on either Super 15 or Southern Hemisphere Championship duty as he did last year disrupted home life.

However, it does not take too much sleuth work to establish that another crucial contributory factor is money – or the lack of it in Rugby Union Down Under, and in the rest of the planet, compared with the oceans of filthy lucre sloshing around in French club rugby.

The Australian Rugby Union were apparently unable to offer Mowen a big earner ‘top-up’ contract, worth up to £265,000, on top of a Super Rugby contract of  c. £130,000, making it worth almost £400,000 a year. These have been earmarked only for the leading 30 players in the country, with the added proviso that those eligible must have been in the Wallaby squad for two years. This means that an international player of one year’s standing like Mowen could earn a Test match fee of only £5,340 per match – so £74,760 for 14 Tests – on top of his Super Rugby contract, totalling c. £200,000 a year.

Mowen was clearly not chuffed at captaining players who were on double his salary and, when offered a deal by a French club probably worth more than a Wallaby top-up contract, plus more time with his family, it was a no-brainer.

The top overseas earners in the Top 14, such as Jonny Wilkinson, Jonny Sexton and Bryan Habana are on salaries of over £500,000 a year, and with the Top 14’s coffers filled to overflowing this week after their administrative arm, the LNR, signed a new TV rights deal with Canal +, French club pay-packets are likely to get even fuller.

The £293.5m Canal + deal is for five years, and,  although substantially less than the Middle Eastern-owned media group beIN Sports were offering, it still amounts, at £58.2m p.a., to almost three times the value of the Premiership’s television rights (c. £22m p.a.).

This explains why the French clubs, with a current salary cap of £10m a season, as opposed to £4.5m in the Premiership, have the financial clout to buy any player on the planet.

This situation should concern Lapasset deeply because the ARU’s failure to keep a player of Mowen’s stature undermines the IRB pyramid which puts international rugby at the apex and the club game subsidiary to it.

The reality is that if the French clubs attract all the biggest stars in the world game to the Top 14 they will be hosts to an annual tournament which supplants the World Cup as the biggest show in town.

There are clear signs that the French are not fussed about a European solution. Before Christmas the French clubs left their English counterparts in the lurch over their joint promotion of the Rugby Champions Cup as a replacement for the Heineken Cup. Having said they would stand shoulder to shoulder they did a runner, leaving the Premiership isolated.

To make matters worse Lapasset’s henchman, the French Rugby Federation’s authoritarian ‘Monsieur Le President’, Pierre Camou, stuffed up the chances of an early European Cup resolution by insisting that any new tournament be run under the auspices of its lapdog, FIRA.

It drove the negotiations on the future of a European club competition into a cul-de-sac and was a stark reminder of why the French have a reputation for self-serving opportunism.

The Top 14’s plundering of the planet for players has reinforced that perception. It has served notice that the French clubs intend to use their current financial clout to corner the market in rugby superstars.

When you can pay salaries more than double those available elsewhere you can take your pick.

It explains why, whereas there are tight limits on overseas players in England, through the English Qualified Player (EQP) scheme, and Ireland and Wales – if not Scotland – the French clubs allow a huge amount of flex. The current Top 14 regulations allow 40 per cent of each squad to be non-French qualified.

Whether this translates into success at international level for France remains to be seen.

However, the Top 14 is threatenening to turn international rugby into a sideshow, and, so far, Lapasset has been surprisingly slow to react. The IRB’s French chairman needs to come up with a plan, and we should be told what it is.

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