Toulon’s itchy feet reveal changing shape of Euro rugby

It’s more than a quarter of a century since the Berlin Wall came down and communism was rolled up like a musty carpet across Eastern Europe.

Toulon’s itchy feet reveal changing shape of Euro rugby

But travel to pretty much any major city behind the old Iron Curtain, and you can’t help but notice the incongruous sight of crumbling old Soviet-era buildings beside gleaming new glass monuments to capitalism.

Rugby isn’t all that different.

For all the professionalism and the bigger bucks swirling around the game, there are constant reminders of its amateur heritage in the glut of stadia across Ireland, the UK, and France which combine elements of the old and the new. Stade Felix Mayol, the home of European champions Toulon, is probably the best example right now.

A superbly atmospheric venue, it sits on the corner of the bay where the French naval fleet has weighed anchor for decades, but it is a concrete relic of times past that is only now being upgraded to something more befitting a spot where the likes of Ma’a Nonu, Matt Giteau, and Bryan Habana are paid to entertain.

When the owner Mourad Boudjellal hosts his bizarre post-match press conferences, it is in what appears to be a converted utility room that would qualify as no more than a cupboard in a Premier League stadium. A seemingly abandoned shopping trolley leaned up against a wall a few feet to his right as he held court at the top table after the defeat of Leinster last month.

Have no doubt, rugby is only at the foothills of its journey.

Boudjellal has pumped millions into his beloved Toulon but he is clearly one of those who believe the game is still in its infancy in professional terms and the confirmation this week he wrote formally to the Aviva Premiership in England to apply for membership is consistent with his penchant for upsetting the oftentimes staid world of rugby’s boardrooms.

The comic book magnet has railed constantly against the French federation and the Top 14 league authorities and if his recent English gambit is among the many that could be easily dismissed as a publicity stunt, then it shouldn’t be summarily dismissed in a European club environment still permeable and fluid as the pro game prepares to celebrate its 21st.

The recent manoeuvring that brought about the demise of the Heineken Cup and the birth of the Rugby Champions Cup is the most obvious example as to how the ground on which club rugby has established itself is shifting and loyalties are held lightly. It is hardly a stretch to suggest that the landscape won’t be very different again in another 21 years’ time.

What price then a complete breakdown of borders?

In football, talk of a European Superleague has been widespread for decades and rugby has far less complicating ties that bind than its association cousin. The Top 14 does have a history stretching back to 1892 but the English Premiership was only born with the Courage Leagues in 1987 while the current millennium was a year old before the Celtic League reared its head.

Such boundaries may seem set in stone now but the Welsh have played league games against their Celtic and Italian counterparts and cup ties with the English for some time now and there was a stage during the torturous negotiations over the future of the European club competitions when it seemed as if the principality’s regions might throw their lot in with those across the Severn.

Cardiff Blues chairman Peter Thomas had an even more radical suggestion last October in the wake of a World Cup that saw the northern hemisphere excluded from the final four of a tournament hosted in England when he put forward the idea of a Super 15 type competition to rival the all-singing, all-dancing version below the equator.

Thomas spoke of two ‘super’ sides in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, four from France and England and another from Italy. “You would have 14 games of Super Rugby and 13 international matches and there’s your season for the elite players,” he explained while adding that the existing ‘national’ leagues would continue as is.

It’s an interesting concept though one that would appear to ignore the opposition that would be implicit from those business people and unions with vested interests in the various clubs, regions and provinces, not to mention the multi-million euro and pound TV deals that have driven the game forward in France and England in particular.

Former Harlequins chief executive Mark Evans painted a more likely picture seven years ago when he predicted the rise of the superclubs — Leinster and Munster in Ireland, Cardiff and Swansea in Wales, Stade Francais, Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse and maybe Montpellier in France, and Leicester, Gloucester and Northampton in England — and the wave of market forces that would lead to a European league.

Note: No mention of Toulon, Racing Metro or Saracens. Proof then of just how quickly the landscape can change and, with the PRO12 struggling for representation in the knockout stages of the Champions Cup again this weekend, we are already in the era of the superclub. The question now is whether a Euroleague is far behind and if the Celts can ever hope to be equal partners in it?

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