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Rugby Union in France – part 2

The rugby scene in France is among the strongest in the world. Many of the top internationals who play for France will stay with their clubs throughout their career as there is a real regional pride with the club sides.

The onset of professionalism in rugby union at the end of the 20th century saw the top players around the world chasing the most luxuriate contracts regardless of country. Although this has happened, to some extent, in France as well, there is no other place where the players have displayed such loyalty to the clubs they were raised in. One of the main reasons for this is that a lot of the top French clubs are owned by wealthy entrepreneurs who have attempted, with their investments, to create their own team as one of the strongest sides in Europe.

Toulouse celebrating their 2010 cup victory

The club championship in France is known as the “Top 14”. Many of the sides in this league are among the strongest in Europe and are full of internationals both from France and other international teams around the world.

At the end of the season, the top six sides play off for the opportunity to make the play off finals and be crowned the champions. The bottom side is automatically relegated to the division below while the second bottom has to go into a play off in order to win its right to play in the top 14 the following season. The league is the wealthiest in Europe, and during the 2011 season the average wages of a French top 14 player was 153,000 euros a year, as compared to the 123,000 that was being earned in the English Premiership. The size of the squads is also larger than an average, consisting of 40 players while the English league teams could only support just over 30 players.

The money was coming in from the rich owners plus the television companies were paying a lot of money to be able to televise games. The downside was that a huge gap started to emerge between the top teams and the rest. Some were forced into liquidation as the elites were claiming all available sponsorship deals. In 2012 a wage cap was introduced into the league, limiting the clubs spending to more than 8 million euros a season. Also, the wage bill could not be more than 50% of the club’s annual turnover. The league now insists that 55% of the playing staff must be French qualified in order to counteract the numbers of overseas players participating in the league.

Englishmen Jonny Wilkinson celebrating with his French team mates

These measures have in no way halted the success of the top French sides. The premier club competition in Europe is the European Rugby Champions Cup. Since it first started, no side in Europe has won it more times than Toulouse, who lead the way with 4 victories and have also been runners up twice.

The club has also won a record of 19 French Championship titles. Based in the south of the country, the side has never had to worry about its quota of French players as it contributes half of the French national side, and 24 of this season’s squad of 39 qualify for France. The second most successful team in Europe are near neighbors, Toulon, with 3 European Champion Cup victories. They have also won the French title on 4 occasions and were one of the first French teams to really embrace the professional era.

At the start of the 21st century the club was floundering in the 2nd division with financial difficulty, until the comic strip publisher Mourad Boudjellal bought the club. Born and raised in the city, he was more than happy to open his cheque book, and the arrival of Jonny Wilkinson from England, Sunny Bill Williams from New Zealand and Tanu Umaga, also from New Zealand, was just the start of the import of virtually a new squad.

Their results reflected the quality of the players, as they won Europe’s top honor three years in succession from 2013 to 2015. There are many other clubs such as Biarritz, Clermont, Brive, Stade Francais and Perpignan with equally illustrious histories, and this is a reflection of the quality in depth in French club rugby.