French championship clubs who aim to compete with title holder and this year's favorites Toulouse have done their possible to attract talented players from the Southern hemisphere. A new era for French rugby?
France's Top 14 rugby season gets underway on Tuesday (August 26) amid an influx of talent from the southern hemisphere.
Australian Ewen McKenzie now occupies the coach's office at Stade Francais, Aussie rugby league player Mark Gasnier joined him at the Paris club and other imported talent include Toulon's Kiwis Jerry Collins and Sonny Bill Williams.
"Last year Stade Francais reached the semi-finals which was good, but I hope to make the team progress. I would like the Stade to be the best team in France," McKenzie said on the club's website.
One of McKenzie's first moves was to sign Gasnier from Illiwara, a man who he describes as a "physical monster with rare technical ability for someone of his size."
Toulon, coached by former All Black Tana Umaga and packed with foreign players, have shot into the Top 14 from the second division. The newcomers can boast Collins, capped 49 times for the All-Blacks, and Australian Rugby League winger Williams.
Their opening match Tuesday is against Clermont, coached over the past two years by New Zealander Vern Cotter who took his side to the top of the table last season thanks to intense preparation previously not seen in French rugby.
In December, New Zealand star fly-half Dan Carter will start a six-month stint at Top 14 club Perpignan.
A similar move will happen at Castres where All Black back row Chris Masoe will report in November.
These short-term interventions are viewed with disfavour in French rugby circles.
The outgoing president of the French Rugby Union (LNR) Serge Blanco warns they might have a bad influence on the Championship. "I am against players dropping in as freelancers," he said on Europe 1 radio after learning of Carter's plan in July, indicating a future rule change might be considered to prevent it.
But ex All-Black Byron Kelleher plans an indefinite stay at Toulouse, who he helped to win the Brennus Shield after the Paris play-off against Clermont on June 28.
"He is the modern rugby player par excellence'" said Toulouse chairman Rene Bouscatel admiringly of his Kiwi scrum-half. "Offensively and defensively he is capable of taking the team to a higher level."
The 31-year-old New Zealander's appetite for the lifestyle in south-west France is enormous: his French is improving, he is teaching team-mates the haka and he has signed for another year.
"I am so happy here, I want to stay as long as I am capable of playing," he laughed following the Brennus Shield triumph over table leaders Clermont.
The France XV which visited Australia during the pre-season had a mediocre performance which made national coach Marc Lievremont despair.
"The Top 14 is poles apart from the top level," groaned Lievremont after the two Test matches which the Wallabies won 40-10 and 34-13.
"The matches are of poor quality with only short periods of effective play. Generally the standard is significantly behind what is happening elsewhere and in particular in the southern hemisphere," added the coach, formerly of Top 14 club Dax.
Rene Fontes, chairman of Clermont, considers the long Top 14 campaign is simply too gruelling for the club, when added to Clermont's forthcoming six European ties in the European Cup.
He advocates reducing the French league to 12 clubs, which would cut four matches from each club's fixture list.
"If we don't find a solution we will continue going round in circles," he told the Rugbyrama website."
"Our team finished the last season on June 28 then started training again just four weeks later, it really is an unacceptable sitiuation."
Date created : 2008-08-26