Even in a normal year, this week would probably count as reasonably busy in French off-season rugby terms. Preseason – which normally begins for most clubs in early July – is now well under way, as administrators, players, coaches and fans look to an expected restart on September 4.
On the training pitch, a couple of notable injuries have already been reported. Clermont are on the lookout for a back rower on a short-term deal, as rampaging Peceli Yato will miss a good chunk of the season after undergoing knee surgery; while Toulouse’s Arthur Bonneval – son of Erik – is out for six months with a ruptured achilles.
But most of the news, still, is off the pitch.
A meeting of Top 14 and Pro D2 presidents is set to take place in Toulouse today (Tuesday, July 7). Top of the agenda: lowering the salary cap, which is currently set at €11.3m. The options: a multi-year process to cut it to €10m; or a deeper cut and a marquee player system, similar to the English Premiership.
Cutting French rugby’s salary cap has been tried before. In December 2018, a similar bid to introduce a marquee player system failed at the final hurdle, with the clubs eventually deciding no change was better than any change.
This time, things may be a little different. According to L’Equipe, the most vociferous presidents remain against the marquee player idea, which runs contrary to the whole idea of cutting the wage bill.
Of the few who are for it, some favour marquee signings being reserved for players who have JIFF status. Either way, with many clubs already agreeing sizeable salary reductions with players and staff, a formal cap reduction seems more likely now than it did 18 months ago.
Elsewhere, Gonzalo Quesada – who has been working in Paris for a couple of weeks – was this week officially unveiled as new head coach of his old club, Stade Francais.
Quesada is a good fit for the club. In his first term, he guided them to the 2015 Top 14 title and the 2017 Challenge Cup before leaving to join first Pro D2 outfit Biarritz, then Super Rugby side Jaguares.
Importantly, Quesada gets Stade in a way that Heyneke Meyer – honourable and honest though he was – did not. Laurent Sempéré and Julien Arias, who took the reins at a difficult time following Meyer’s resignation last November, will stay on as Quesada’s lieutenants in what looks a formidable coaching unit.
Under the two former players, Stade started enjoying themselves last season, and began playing with a sense of purpose and direction. Quesada will build on that as part of what the club’s billionaire owner Hans-Peter Wild described as the start of a ‘new cycle’ for the club.
Don’t expect instant success. It would be a surprise to see Stade challenging for honours next season, but they should be more consistent, more solid, harder to beat.
Speaking of billionaire owners – or, at least would-be ones – Beziers’ Game of Thrones saga has a way to go yet. The on-off-on-again Emirati bid was finally accepted last weekend, following several days of backroom drama.
Former Toulouse president Rene Bouscatel officially stepped aside, after his offer was first accepted, then rejected following a public airing of grievances in front of the club’s home ground; and the Christophe Dominici-led project was given preferred bidder status.
The way appeared clear – even though a number of players at one time linked to the club announced they were staying put, or moving elsewhere. Dan Biggar and late-mentioned Courtney Lawes decided to stay at Northampton; while Beauden Barratt announced he was joining Suntory Sungoliath in Japan in a deal that will allow him to remain available for the All Blacks.
No matter: Manu Tuilagi is set to leave Leicester. Unsurprisingly, it took a fraction of a New York second for the French media – notably Le Figaro – to put Tuilagi and Ma’a Nonu together in a new Beziers’ midfield. No paper actually showed the working out that helped them come to that conclusion, and all admit that sizeable questions have to be answered, notably: would Tuilagi be prepared to give up his England and British and Irish Lions chances to run out in France’s second division? That’s a big, big ask.
But the rumours mount. Midi Olympique reported on Friday that Dominici has made approaches for Wales and Bath No.8 Taulupe Faletau, right, and La Rochelle’s out-of-favour centre Pierre Aguillon. Both are still under contract with their respective clubs – not that release clause money is likely to be an object.
The takeover, however, is far from complete. French sports’ financial watchdog, the DNACG, said on Thursday that it had yet to receive a number of key documents concerning the much-publicised buyout. Without its approval, the deal can’t go ahead.
Assuming the paperwork gets sorted, expect every big name to get a linked-to-Beziers headline. Toulon’s Eben Etzebeth and Saracens’ Maro Itoje already have – with, as media reporting on Donald Trump claims often say, no evidence. There is, however, evidence to suggest that Dominici’s efforts to tempt former Australia coach Michael Cheika to the south coast of France as head coach have failed. For now.
Amid this swirling fog of rumour and speculation, the club’s current coaches – who may be out of a job sooner rather than later – are working through preseason, planning for a campaign they may not be in charge of, with players who may suddenly find themselves out of favour under a new regime that may or may not demand instant success.
The longer the uncertainty runs now, the more difficult next season will get. Because time matters. Hopefully, the prospective new owners understand that.