The Six Nations rugby tournament starts this weekend under the looming shadow of an immense pile of cash.
The reaction to the record television deal signed recently by French clubs is proof that money doesn’t always buy happiness – particularly when it is going to someone else.
The competition opens on Saturday with two matches, the second of which is the heavyweight collision between France and England at the Stade de France in the outskirts of Paris. Saturday’s encounter between France and its ancient enemy promises to have a particularly desperate edge.
While things have never looked better for French clubs, they have rarely looked worse for the national team. The two things might be related. The French league, the Top 14, has signed a five-year deal with French broadcaster Canal+ worth 355 million euros. The French national team, meanwhile, has just finished a year in which it only won two matches. It was last in the Six Nations, a tournament it won five times between 2002 and 2010.
Historically, national teams have generated most of rugby’s cash. That’s still the case in Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy where their clubs command minuscule television revenues. But the French TV contract and 188-million-euro four-year deal English clubs signed with British broadcasters in 2012 are changing the landscape.
Money isn’t making the clubs happy. The English are withdrawing from the European Cup next season because they want even more. Meanwhile, in Wales, where the clubs are the playthings of the national federation, Toulon’s attempt to recruit Sam Warburton, the Wales captain, has generated continuing irritation on all sides.
Good for clubs, bad for France
There are some in France who see a connection between the wealth of the clubs and the poverty of the national team. French clubs can afford the best talent from around the world. That’s good for them. It might be bad for the France team.
"It's unbelievable but 70 percent of the wings in the Top 14 are from Tonga, Fiji or New Zealand,'' Philippe Saint- André, the French coach; told the media this week.
His former France team-mate, Thomas Castaignède, told The Guardian: "The problem is that presidents and coaches think it is better to buy players who are mature than to form their own players over the years. The number of first-choice French players is more and more limited."
A lack of depth can rapidly become a serious problem because of the brutal nature of rugby. Saint-André had just settled on Rémi Talès to play the key position of fly half, when Talès injured his arm. He is not the only absentee. Camille Lopez, Wenceslas Lauret, Morgan Parra, Florian Fritz and the former captain, Thierry Dusautoir, are all hurt. Yet France are hardly alone in suffering injuries. England’s list of missing players is even longer.
Le Crunch in reverse
Saturday’s game promises to be particularly fierce even by the standards of a traditionally volatile encounter the French call “le crunch”. France are desperate. They know the opening match can set the tone. Their slide last year began in the opening round of the Six Nations when they lost to Italy, the weakest nation in the competition over the last decade.
But there will also be an emphasis on physical battles on Saturday because of a peculiar reversal in the traditional objectives of the two teams.
The French are traditionally the artists of international rugby. Yet this team looks built to bludgeon. Even by modern rugby standards, France’s forward pack is huge. The recall of Mathieu Bastareaud, a human cannonball, suggests the French backs will continue their recent preference for power over guile.
Meanwhile England’s “Rosbifs”, the traditional bulls of European rugby, have one eye on the World Cup next year and are trying, with limited success, to add some guile to their play.
Saint-André remains optimistic. “When you finish bottom in 2013, it's difficult to say you are favourites in 2014. Wales and England are still the favourites,'' he told the media this week. "I just believe in this squad, in these young players."
Wales seek historic treble
Italy, which torpedoed France’s hopes in the opening round last year, have a chance to spring another early surprise when they face Wales in Cardiff in the opening match of the tournament at lunchtime on Saturday.
Wales also lost their opening match last season, beaten at home by Ireland. Unlike France, they bounced back, winning their next four games to take the Six Nations title for the second year in a row.
In the long history of the tournament which started with four teams in 1883, no team has won the title outright in three straight seasons. In days before points were used as a tiebreaker, Scotland did finish with at least a share of the title in six straight seasons in the late 19th century, but that included a three-way tie and a pair of two-way ties. A triumph by Wales this year would complete an unprecedented triple.
"We have a chance for three in a row and to create history,'' Warburton said. "It is nice people are saying on the outside that Wales are favourites, but no one is underestimating how tough it will be to win the Six Nations again.''
Last weekend, Warburton became the first player to sign a contract directly with the Welsh Rugby Union, which was desperate to prevent its national captain emigrating to the south of France.
The response from many in Wales has been “uninformed vitriol,” his agent, Derwyn Jones told The Times newspaper on Wednesday. Part of the reason is the size of the contract, even though Jones said Warburton could have earned twice as much (Jones mentioned 850,000 euros a year) in Toulon. Part of the reason is that the deal is seen as helping Warburton’s club Cardiff. Part of the reason is that some Welsh fans, spoilt for choice, think Wales may not need Warburton.
Warburton remains the Welsh captain but is, for the moment, on the bench for Saturday. Jason Tipuric and Dan Lydiate have been selected as the starting wing forwards. But Warburton, the man who decided not to go to France, may regain his place. Lydiate has chosen to fly home to Paris, where he plays in the Top 14 for Racing Metro, because his fiancée is due to deliver their baby. If it arrives before Friday, he will hop on a flight back.
Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to imagine rugby flank forwards as members of the jet set. Money has altered that. But that is not the only way Lydiate's trip reveals a change in rugby’s attitudes.
Even a decade ago, it would have been unthinkable that a hard-nosed rugby coach, like Warren Gatland of Wales, would have told a star player that being present at the birth of his child was more important than playing in the Six Nations
Perhaps, with Warburton on the bench and Italy on the other side Gatland feels he can take a relaxed attitude. As Saint-André could tell him, underestimating Italy might not be wise.
Date created : 2014-01-29