As the kid said to Bob Geldof after Live Aid: ‘Is that it?’ Formal confirmation came at lunchtime on Thursday that the French Top 14 season is over.
Cancelled without resolution. It’s dramatic for sure, but scarcely a bolt from the blue.
Club presidents met on Wednesday night with three options on the table. August semi-finals for the top four were being promoted in some quarters but any such scenario was without spectators. When questions are being asked daily about the viability of clubs come September, when this all kicks off again, it offers a stark reminder of the financial vulnerability of some small town operations without the deep pockets of a benefactor.
Options 1 and 2 were discounted in favour of Option 3, which was to concentrate all resources, medical included, towards ensuring there is a Top 14 ready to get underway in the autumn. This season, there won’t be a winner of the Bouclier de Brennus.
In French rugby, that represents an apocalyptic scenario. From the first winners, Racing Club of Paris, in 1892, the Bouclier has been vigorously contested through wars and everything else. Save the years 1940-42, there has always been a Bouclier winner, right up to Toulouse last season.
Ironically the same Toulouse are outside the Top Six at the moment, so in terms of deciding which sides qualify for Europe next season, expect some vigorous discussions in the coming days and weeks. Already there is speculation of a remodelled Champions Cup next season with eight groups of three and the winners going straight to the quarter-finals. That’s 24 teams, eight of which would be from the French Top 14.
The key points in the discussions between the LNR and the club presidents related to the stuff that makes the world go around – ie money – and the issue of tv rights, relegation and European qualification. It appears there will be no relegation this year, which means there will be no promotion from Pro D2, which is particularly tough on Colomiers and Perpignan, who are striding ahead in the second tier.
French rugby is different to the English and Irish model insofar as European competition is not a top priority, or even a secondary one. The Top 14 is where it is at in terms of the financial modelling of clubs and the LNR, which runs the league. At one stage this week, the suggestion was that there would be no domestic rugby til next January, which forced everyone involved in the discussions to take a deep breath and work harder on some sort of agreement.
For instance, our international winger Vincent Rattez is leaving for Montpellier. With the lockdown continuing in France til May 11th at least, will I even see him again at the club?
Brock James is retiring from the game. What will his departure be like from the club? Unsatisfactory, one suspects.
There will be some loose ends to be tidied up in every club. At things stand, we lie fifth in the league, but we have our business done for next season already in terms of incomings, so there won’t be the headache of contracts to be inked or cancelled. We are bringing in Brice Dublin from Racing 92, and a couple of yet-to-be-announced signings. More of those soon.
It’s too early for a full-scale post-mortem into my first season as a head coach. We have moved things forward but in your own head, it’s never quite as much forward as you’d like it to be.
I am convinced that to win Europe you need a really good rugby strategy, but winning the grind that is the Top 14 takes something different: it requires a tight group where players throw everything they have up on the table. The challenge in Year One has been to make the group that bit tighter, and we are only halfway there in that regard. Mindsets are very different here from where I would have come from in Munster as a player and the Crusaders as a coach.
I started my coaching journey with Racing and that took some time to get right, so it’s not an overnight process. Far from it, in fact. Recruitment in the club game is huge but not as big as creating an environment where everyone feels valued. I have visited this topic more than once in these pages but making the players who won’t get a lot of playing minutes a valuable and contributing part of the squad is a lot more challenging than anyone thinks.
It’s not even No’s 16-23 because a least they are getting togged at the weekend, but it’s the players from No 24 to No 38 that can be a difficult proposition. Some players are in denial, some accept the message but don’t hide their frustration and a third group get on board and look to improve.
It’s important to explain the difference too between a head coach operating with a director of rugby and one who is not. I am ultimately responsible for what goes on inside the white lines. That’s my primary function, get the performance side of things right. Did we try to bite off more than we needed to at times from a strategy point of view? Perhaps. Performance is ultimately what matters and a gameplan with a lot of new learnings isn’t necessary every week. If that’s over-eagerness on my part, I’m guilty as charged.
When I was a Munster player, we had fellas who had peaks and troughs in terms of form, so I played with, for instance, Niall Ronan for six years. Some games he was unbelievable and other times not so much. Everyone has a form line which has to be acknowledged and considered and when I came into La Rochelle I did so with a limited knowledge of the intricacies of the playing group. So one has to be patient enough to accept that there’s a lot of information and learnings to digest in the first season here, truncated though it will be.
It’s, at once, exciting and frustrating that we never really put anything more than 40 minutes of quality rugby together this season. Against Montpellier, when we streaked 17 points clear, I remember thinking to myself ‘we could really do something as a group here’. But by that game’s end, we were hanging on for dear life for the win.
The Champions Cup win in Glasgow was a great win to grind out in very a unFrench-like way but it was a victory we should have had anyway in the home game against the Warriors.
Thursday’s confirmation of a cancelled season also has the effect of sending the brain into an odd sort of overdrive. There’s the potential for a lengthy summer ahead – doing what no- one is quite sure – but also of a squeezed and very demanding season ahead. The Top 14 usually kicks off at the end of July, so it will place extraordinary demands on players and coaches. Once we have a definite start date, everyone will begin working backwards from that. There has never been a season like this, and nobody is really ready to take stock and contextualise what is happening. That may take some time.
I am perennially in a rush, but in this business being methodical and playing the long game is better by far. Wanting things too badly is not so productive when you swap playing for coaching.