French grins get wider as rugby stars pitch up in Riviera

The eyes are gleaming, the handshakes almost as warm as the golden sands a mile or two away.
French grins get wider as rugby stars pitch up in Riviera

As Quade Cooper enjoys a warm welcome from Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, his Australian clubmates Drew Mitchell and Matt Giteau are posting pictures online of their days on the French Riviera.

On that same afternoon, Bath are trying to clean up the mess left by the departure of Sam Burgess and Munster are attempting to calm fears Simon Zebo is off to Toulouse.

It is a stark illustration of the difference between the haves and have-nots in European rugby.

And after a month of debate over the chasm between the northern and southern hemispheres do we have to accept a gulf of another kind; that the French are so dominant in European club rugby there is no point in the others turning up for the start of the Champions Cup this weekend?

“People used to talk about the Irish provinces getting to another level in European rugby but now it’s the French who do that,” says Glasgow head coach Gregor Townsend ruefully.

“Toulon have dominated European rugby in recent years and Clermont Auvergne have been pretty good. They are two of the richest teams in world rugby so it’s no surprise they are in the play-offs every year.

“I wouldn’t say French rugby as a whole are ahead – I’d say it’s those two.

“They play a different kind of rugby in Europe too. A couple of years ago we played Toulon and I watched 10 of their games – the most I had looked at an opposition team.

“I gave a brilliant presentation on what they’d do. On the day they just gave it to Matt Giteau and scored four tries against us in the first-half!

“French club rugby is about winning your local games, and in Europe they say no, let’s do it a different way. Let’s use those fantastic backs we’ve got.”

The point Townsend is making is simple; the big two in France can beat you any way you want them to.

But are they beatable themselves? On the face of it, perhaps not.

If they were strong last year the terrifying recruitment strategy adopted across France has only made them more powerful.

Toulon alone have signed Cooper, (the injured) Paul O’Connell, Samu Manoa, Duane Vermeulen, Ma’a Nonu, James O’Conner, Matt Stevens and Salesi Ma’afu.

Then factor in that through the season Dan Carter, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Will Genia, Sekope Kepu and the du Plessis brothers are all arriving in France after a World Cup break and it is A truly frightening prospect.

At the last count the French Top 14 sides had a combined debt of €33.8m, a figure that is almost certain to rise.

Leinster’s wage bill is thought to be just over €10m. Toulon’s is around €35m. Yet it’s not just the Irish who struggle.

“The English clubs have 20-25 players,” says Jim Mallinder, the Northampton director of rugby.

“The French clubs have quality going down to 40-odd players. That’s what we’re up against, but the salary-cap will increase here and that should balance out some of those differences.”

New Leinster Director of Rugby Leo Cullen understandably couches his optimism, but he is right in pointing out that his side could have knocked Toulon out at the semi-final if Jimmy Gopperth had landed a drop-goal in Marseille.

“I think the French clubs are the leading favourites for sure again,” says Cullen.

“I would hope we would be able to push them closely. It was fine margins against Toulon last year, we had a drop to win it. If that went over it may have been different. There are a few that can win the tournament but we will see.”

Yet that is a rare beacon of optimism from those in the Pro12 and Aviva Premiership.

“There is no massive change from last season,” says Bath captain Stuart Hooper when asked why we should be optimistic it won’t be another French procession.

“But the way the competition is run any team has the ability to be the best on the day. We go to Toulon for our opening game with the ability to be the best on the day.”

In short, Bath are hoping for a stellar one-off performance similar to that which did for Toulouse last season. It is not one guaranteed to bring success over a season.

It is this disparity in Europe that has led to the upheaval in England in recent times. There are strong suspicions two clubs have been pushing the salary cap to the very brink in a bid to haul in the French. The allegations are unproven but insiders suggest it is impossible to compete with Toulon which sticking within the €7.15m framework, even if two players are outside of that figure.

So instead we have allegations of clever accountancy in England and resignation in Ireland while the French run amok.

Expect the grins to be just as wide in France at the season’s end.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Leone Nakarawa (Glasgow): The Fijian has a fair claim to be the best lock in world rugby. His coach at Glasgow, Gregor Townsend, certainly thinks so. “He has had a brilliant six months,” said Townsend. “He ended the season on a real high with us, and was Man of the Match in the Pro12 final. Then he played every game in the Pacific Nations Cup, scored two tries in the Final and was voted player of the tournament. Then he was brilliant in every minute of the World Cup, was Man of the Match in his last game there and Man of the Match for us on his return.” Not bad. Not bad at all.

Nikola Matawalu (Bath): Nakarawa’s Fijian team-mate may have a similar impact on replacing Peter Stringer at Bath. A livewire scrum-half, he should work superbly in tandem with George Ford. A stellar signing and undoubtedly one to watch.

Maro Itoje (Saracens):  Itoje has long been touted as a future England captain and this season is expected to deliver on his undoubted promise. Superb in either the second row or flank, expect him to be a potential Lion in 2017.

Joe Rokococo (Racing 92):  The grand old man of All Blacks rugby switched from Bayonne to Racing in the summer and clearly feels there is enough left in the tank for a tilt at European glory. Few others guarantee tries like Rokococo.

Samu Manoa (Toulon): Amid the southern hemisphere marvels arriving at Toulon, it could be an American who makes the biggest impact. Manoa spent four years blasting holes in Premiership defences while with Northampton and will do the same in France.

Five games to watch

Nov 14th: Glasgow v Racing 92 - Glasgow are clearly very good, but we’ll find out just how good they are on Saturday when a star-studded Racing team head to Scotland. A win here would be a real statement from the Pro12 champions.

Nov 15th: Toulon v Bath -  A cracker on the opening weekend as Bath – easily the most entertaining team in England – travel to the three-time champions. Bath have enjoyed some big away wins in recent years but this would top the lot.

Nov 22nd: Wasps v Toulon - In the undoubted Pool of Death Wasps are somewhat of an unknown quantity. Rebuilding over the past few seasons they have now moved to Coventry and recruited quality in George Smith and Charles Piutau. This could be tricky for Toulon.

Dec 12th: Munster v Leicester - Expect to hear a lot about 2007 and Leicester ending Munster’s unbeaten record at Thomond Park in the build-up to this. Neither are perhaps the force of old but it should be thoroughly entertaining.

Dec 20th: Clermont v Exeter - A slightly left-field choice but Exeter are nobody’s fools these days and will genuinely believe they can cause the mother of all upsets at Clermont. Expect plenty of running rugby if the weather holds up.

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