Champions Cup: Top 14 giants reaping rewards of 'Made in France' shift

French rugby has been seriously reconsidering its place as a Land of Milk and Honey for overseas players for some time. The Galactico days are long over.
Champions Cup: Top 14 giants reaping rewards of 'Made in France' shift

La Rochelle's Ihaia West and Uini Atonio: Part of the French side's enjoying success in the Champions Cup this season. Picture: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Early in the last decade, one British newspaper declared European rugby's immediate future would be dominated by mega-rich Top 14 clubs. It was wrong.

Fears the PRO14 and English Premiership would not be able to keep pace with the galaxy of TV rights-funded star-studded sides from France were premature.

Now, however, things are changing, as French clubs show off their 'Made in France' credentials, after recognising the Irish provincial model as the best in class.

That newspaper theory coincided with the notorious European competition landgrab by English and French clubs that saw the Champions Cup replace the Heineken Cup. Galactico-studded French sides in the Toulon-of-the-time mould would sweep all before them, the thinking ran. Things didn't turn out that way.

Since the changing of the competitions, Saracens - with or without an asterisk - have claimed three titles. Toulon, twice winners at the end of the old Heineken Cup era, have won one, as have Leinster and Exeter. Over the same six-year period, Racing 92 have lost three finals, and Clermont two.

This year, Toulouse, La Rochelle, Racing 92, Clermont, and Bordeaux have reached the tournament's quarter-finals.

But France's Top 14 has not turned into the great player sink feared nearly 10 years ago. Quite the opposite, thanks to player regulations intended to protect and serve the national squad - and, ironically, widespread belt-tightening as big-name signings came with increasingly big, salary-cap swallowing pay cheques.

Today, with the cap falling from €11.3m to €10m by 2025, expensive overseas imports are a luxury clubs are increasingly willing to live without - especially those likely to be called up during international windows.

Racing 92, for example, despite having some of the deepest pockets in the Top 14, are currently set to have just six imports on their books next season.

A French star, Gael Fickou - who will join from Stade Francais - looks set to be not just Racing's biggest signing, but the biggest in the entire Top 14, such is the premium on French players.

The effects are being felt in Europe, too, where the numbers speak for themselves. Of the eight French clubs that qualified for European club rugby's flagship tournament this season, seven qualified for the round of 16.

Here's another telling figure: 76. That's the number of French players fielded by the five qualifying Top 14 clubs in their round-of-16 games, according to Midi Olympique.

Lyon can add a further 15; while Toulon, of all the historic European title-winning sides, would have fielded 17 against Leinster - for a total of 108 French players out of a full headcount of 161, at an average of more than 15 per side.

More than two-thirds of the total players in Top 14 sides last weekend were French. It still does not match the homegrown numbers in squads generally favoured by Munster and Leinster - look again at those round-of-16 teamsheets - but it would have been unthinkable not so very long ago.

It has taken nearly a decade of rules for French clubs to catch up with this philosophy. As of today, French clubs in the Top 14 and ProD2 can sign a maximum of 14 non-JIFF players - and must maintain an average of 16 JIFF players in their matchday squads across the season.

Plans to strengthen player restrictions further were his week delayed until the 2022/23 campaign because of the pandemic - but from then, the maximum number of non-JIFF players per overall squad drops to 13 for established sides, while the matchday average of JIFF players will rise to 17.

The truth is, French rugby has been seriously reconsidering its place as a Land of Milk and Honey for overseas players for some time. The Galactico days are long over.

The phrase 'French qualified' is sometimes used as code to explain JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation) regulations. That's not strictly accurate. JIFF-qualified players have spent three seasons at a professional French club’s youth academy before turning 21 or have been registered to play in France for five seasons before the age of 23.

Munster's Eoghan Barrett, who has been with Pau since 2018, is now JIFF-qualified. As are former England players Steffon and Delon Armitage because they spent five years in southeast France as teenagers.

But, on the whole, the rules have prompted clubs to seek out new talent in their own backyards.

Nowhere is the 'Made in France' effect more obvious than former Galactico country Toulon. Long before he left to take the reins at fourth division football club Hyeres, Mourad Boudjellal called time on Toulon's player spending spree, admitting he could not keep pace with the likes of Racing 92, Stade Francais or Montpellier.

Instead, in January 2019, he started to build what the club and Boudjellal billed at the time as a "factory of champions". It officially opened earlier this season.

"Not a single talent from the region should escape us," the president said at a special meeting to unveil the plans.

"We want a reference system and standards for all youth teams with the RCT label. With the desire to put players at the centre of the system but also to promote in-house training for educators," added Laurent Emmanuelli, head of sports policy at the club.

It was enough to attract head coach Patrice Collazo. "I signed up for a club project," he said at the time. "The RCT must regain a strong identity that encompasses everyone from mini rugby to pros, and alumni.

"The project will be based on a team built with players from the training centre and the region, but also with the possibility of seeking skills with a margin of progress in the Top 14 or ProD2. And finally, foreigners who bring real added value."

Racing and Toulouse operate the same model. La Rochelle's is fundamentally similar. Clermont are offloading their overseas players - Peter Betham and Tim Nanai-Williams will follow Sitaleki Timani and Jake McIntyre out of the club at the end of the season.

Ambitious Lyon are building a JIFF-friendly squad - with, currently, just nine non-JIFF players on their books next season. Bordeaux are in the same place. Stade Francais are starting out on that French player-bricked route.

In 2015, the year of Toulon - and the Top 14's - last Champions Cup win, three French clubs reached the knockout phase. The same number made the last eight the following two years. Four got that far in 2018 - and just two in 2019. Last year, what was then a record four made it that far. This year, it's five, and rapidly improving Lyon and Toulon will be back.

It's too simple and lazy to credit the beginnings of what looks like the changing fortunes of Top 14 clubs in Europe after six years of disappointment to the increase of homegrown players. It has happened because of a fundamental philosophical shift - prompted by rules and, crucially, money - that has taken a decade to bed in.

Maybe that British newspaper will turn out to be right, after all. Just a decade too early and for very different reasons.

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