Top 14 ‘bubble is bursting’ as rugby’s richest league faces Covid-19 uncertainty

A decade of unprecedented spending by France's richest rugby clubs has helped bring the likes of New Zealand flyhalf Dan Carter (right) to the Top 14.
A decade of unprecedented spending by France's richest rugby clubs has helped bring the likes of New Zealand flyhalf Dan Carter (right) to the Top 14. © Franck Pennant, AFP

The big spending power that brought the likes of Dan Carter and Jonny Wilkinson to France is fast eroding, leading rugby agents have warned, as the coronavirus pandemic dampens the enthusiasm of Top 14 clubs.

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The likes of Rugby World Cup winners Handre Pollard, Eben Etzebeth and Cheslin Kolbe have contracts with sides in the French league, following in the footsteps of a roll call of names that includes Carter, Wilkinson and Matt Giteau.

Several leading unions, including New Zealand and South Africa, have announced significant pay cuts for their players, potentially paving the way for more signings by big-spending French clubs.

However, the impact of Covid-19 has restricted Top 14 outfits from adding to their squads.

"The bubble is bursting. Right now, the clubs are taking notice of the reality. They're living outside of their means," Damien Dussault, who represents Fiji's Olympic gold medallist Semi Kunatani, told AFP.

"On the market for players, the discussions don't ever really stop. They are slow right now because some teams don't know their budgets, some don't know when they'll restart playing," he added.

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South Africa Rugby said in May their players would lose up to 43 percent of their income, and they allowed individuals to look for contracts abroad.

Two weeks ago Springboks' World Player of the Year Pieter-Steph du Toit was linked with Montpellier in a 3.7 million euro ($4.03 million) three-year deal. But the billionaire-backed side denied the reports and the loose forward signed a one-season contract extension with the Stormers instead.

"I'm interested in Du Toit. But until now I haven't had any contact with him. And right now the moment isn't right to talk about recruitment," owner Mohed Altrad told newspaper Midi Olympique last week.

Du Toit's fellow World Cup winners in Boks captain Siya Kolisi, props Frans Malherbe and Steven Kitshoff as well as Makazole Mapimpi and Lukhanyo Am were also offered to French outfits, but to no avail.

'We need clarity’

Despite a hefty salary cap of 11.3 million euros, Top 14’s transfer market has been hampered by a reduction in ticket sale income from last season, a potential loss of sponsors and the general uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

"There are quite a lot of players but right now the clubs haven't got the space in the budget or in the salary cap," agent Laurent Quaglia said.

"There are deals which could be done but aren't done because of the health situation. All the deals that have been announced were signed a long time ago," Quaglia, who helped bring Australia's Kurtley Beale to Racing 92, added.

The other Paris club Stade Francais, which boasted the competition’s biggest budget last year with 40 millions euros, have kept their business to a minimum for the coming campaign having signed Argentina pair Nicolas Sanchez and Pablo Matera last summer.

"Transfers, recruitment are pretty much at a stop, when normally it's all finished by now," the Paris-based club's general manager Thomas Lombard told AFP earlier this month.

He added: "We're not in absolute emergency, but we need clarity on things."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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