Top 14's salary cap reduction underlines changing of the guard
The French Top 14 has attracted some of the world's biggest names such as ex-All Blacks Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Tana Umaga, former England fly-half Jonny Wilkinson or more recently South Africa's Rugby World Cup winners Handre Pollard and Eben Etzebeth, thanks to sumptuous wages.
Last week it was announced that from 2021 the salary cap, originally introduced in 2010 and currently set at 11.3 million euros ($12.74 million) per year, will gradually drop to 9.94 million euros in the following years due to the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Top 14, the domestic competition with the highest wage limitation and the most lucrative television deal in world rugby, is adamant it will continue to entice the best, despite being forced to do so with less money.
"With the salary cap, the Top 14 remains a consistent and passionate competition right until the end," the LNR said.
In recent years the tournament has been beaten to some big signings by Japan's Top League and even the English Premiership with a salary cap of 6.4 million pounds ($8 million, 7 million euros) which will be reduced to 5.0 million pounds from 2021.
England's top-flight also has a marquee player rule in place allowing two squad members from each club to be exempt from the wage restrictions.
The likes of former New Zealand captain Kieran Read, ex-Australia skipper David Pocock and livewire Springboks winger Makazole Mapimpi have chosen to head to Japan.
Earlier this month All Blacks fly-half Beauden Barrett signed a one-year deal with Suntory Sungoliath, an outfit supported by a multinational food and drinks company based in Tokyo.
In another sign of the Top 14's diminishing financial power, destructive Fiji centre Semi Radradra has left Bordeaux-Begles for Bristol Bears with the French club's president Laurent Marti claiming he failed to compete financially with the English side.
"The new El Dorado for players from the southern hemisphere is Japan. Geographically it's close to New Zealand and Australia... and they pay well too, the clubs are backed by big businesses like Panasonic, Toyota, Toshiba and Honda," an unnamed French agent said.
Former New Zealand back-rower Victor Vito joined La Rochelle after winning the World Cup in 2015 alongside Carter and Nonu.
He has led the side to a European Challenge Cup final and the Top 14 play offs since being appointed club captain two years ago.
"In general if you're looking to look after your body, from what I've heard, (Japan's) probably better than coming here," Vito told AFP in September.
"The Top 14 is pretty much an 11-month season in terms of pre-season and then the games, it takes its toll," he added.
- 'Farce' -
Pollard's Montpellier, owned by Syrian billionaire Mohed Altrad, have been suspected of breaking salary cap rules but had a fine of 400,000 euros revoked for doing so last November.
Comic book millionaire Mourad Boudjellal signed players such as Umaga, former New Zealand midfielder Sonny Bill Williams and ex-Australia skipper George Gregan during his time as Toulon president.
"There are people who get around because there are groups who allow them to do it. The salary cap is a massive farce where the most virtuous cheat," Boudjellal said a year ago, before leaving the club.
For the new campaign the French league has still managed to bring in the likes of Springboks' world champion Cobus Reinach, Australia playmaker Kurtley Beale as well as Japan full-back Kotaro Matsushima.
With the increasing wealth in Japan, some rich benefactors in England as well as stricter matchday squad regulations on players who have not come through French academies the days of numerous pocket-filling contracts for global stars could be a thing of the past in France.
© 2020 AFP