So the debate rumbles on: is the continued influx of foreign players to the French Top 14 having a devastating effect on French rugby? It seems the current demise of Les Bleus has certainly been attributed to the disproportionate level of foreign players overshadowing young French blood.
With French clubs increasingly becoming privately owned, the onus inevitably is drawn to club level success. The current trend seems to be the scouting of talent from SANZAAR and the Pacific Islands in the quest for glory. These players are snaffled up with the luring of big money contracts and the promise of regular playing time. But at the other end of the spectrum, it highlights the distinct lack of opportunity for home grown young French players. And with no transition into the national team, could this be the catalyst for the current demise of French rugby as we know it. Critics were certainly quick to highlight this following the abysmal showing, albeit sensational destruction, at the hands of the All Blacks at Rugby World Cup 2015. More of the same followed after a disappointing Six Nations campaign with their fourth place finish. The Top 14 is arguably destroying the once dominant France side known for its strength in the competition. Even the French national side are made up of players born outside of France – Spedding (South Africa), Vakatawa (Fiji) and Atonio (New Zealand) just to name a few.
Philippe Saint-Andre was never one to shy away from expressing his views on the matter. During his tenure as France head coach, he was quick to liken the situation to that of the English Premier League, over in the footballing world, where foreign imports stifle the nurturing of young home grown players.
“South Africans, New Zealanders, Fijians, Georgians, Romanians and Tongans proliferate, not to mention the certain Englishman dear to all our hearts.” Add to that the recent arrivals of Australians and Welsh. Saint-Andre’s cause for concern is echoed by former France forward and stalwart Serge Betsen, who was part of the last French team that penetrated the Twickenham fortress over 10 years ago. The ex Wasps flanker shows a deeper concern at the player development within France and a distinct lack of it. “We’ve got a lot of talented players like Gael Fickou and Wesley Fofana. But Fickou needs the time to express his talent. I don’t know why he hasn’t had the time.”
A once renowned familiar flair accustomed to the French way of playing, now in decline at Test and club level, the attacking rugby we once knew has now been replaced with a conservative brute force approach. A reliance on this unappealing and pragmatic style of play distracts players from the confidence and trust synonymous with the flair, expression and panache the nation was once used to. Something we’ve certainly missed over recent times.
Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal has always played down the accusations and concerns of foreign imports hindering French talent. Through comprehensively rejecting the claim, Boudjellal believes the game plan and strategy of France as a national team is primarily responsible for their demise where the coaches should be made to be accountable for their direction. “The staff had better look closer to home rather than blame the Top 14. We must ask the right questions. If they think the losses aren’t their responsibility, that they have become irresponsible. If that’s the case, they must go.”
The French rugby powers-that-be are looking to make the JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filieres) regulations tougher to cease the constant influx of players from foreign shores to the Top 14. Bearing in mind the French clubs were quick to jump through the loopholes, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby have been enforcing tighter regulation on teams with fewer than 12 French qualified players in their match day squads.
Toulon head coach Bernard Laporte is on the charge to be the next FFR president with the premise of bringing in around 200 new coaches to address the concerns around the poor player development currently in operation. The appointment won’t be made until December, but the former French Secretary of State for Sport could be the favourite to take up the role.
In the short term however, the LNR are strongly considering implementing changes to JIFF so that qualifying players under 18 spend at least 2 seasons playing in junior leagues.
Wherever you see yourself in the argument, the French flair has definitely gone out and undoubtedly needs re-igniting. More attention must be paid to the young French players waiting in the wings for the their opportunity, but tougher regulations must be implemented on clubs fielding French and foreign players. Only time will tell, but indeed inevitable changes have to be made.