French rugby's power players have put together a plan for the future, including an extra-special finale to the Top 14 season
The great and the good of French rugby gathered last Thursday in a Bordeaux hotel for their General Assembly. What Midi Olympique described as “the Cardinals of the Oval”, had assembled ostensibly to discuss what to do with the €355m they’ll receive over the course of the next five years courtesy of their TV deal with Canal Plus.
They were all present, not just the likes of Mourad Boudjellal and Jacky Lorenzetti, millionaire owners of Toulon and Racing Métro, but also the presidents of the 16 Pro2 clubs and even Alain Gaillard, a representative of the Union of Coaches.
Before they counted the cash, the delegates were obliged to elect a new member to their executive committee, a position vacated last December by Toulouse president René Bouscatel. He resigned after 15 years on the board in protest at the accord negotiated between the LNR and the FFR, in particular over the issue of international player release that he believes harms Toulouse with their numerous French internationals.
Two candidates had put themselves forward – Castres vice-president Michel Dhomps and Racing owner Lorenzetti – and their battle for election illustrated the rivalry that continues to lurk on the fringes of the domestic game in France like a flanker at the breakdown.
The 66-year-old Dhomps is what you would call an Establishment Man, a former employee in a pharmaceutical company who has risen steadily if unspectacularly through the ranks of French rugby. Described as “passionate” about rugby he is, to use the political jargon, “a safe pair of hands”.
Lorenzetti is hardly butter-fingered – any man who has built up a property empire is not going to be cack-handed – but he’s not an Establishment figure. Last autumn when the English and French clubs sought to breakaway from the ERC with the launch of the Rugby Champions Cup, Lorenzetti was one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the idea, declaring that tournaments should be organised by the clubs, not the federations.
As delegates cast their votes on Thursday, French journalists waited patiently outside in the corridor, marvelling at the 1970s décor of the hotel. When the votes were counted and the result declared, the door opened and out came Lorenzetti, announcing to reporters that he had congratulated Dhomps on his victory. He carried himself with dignity but there was no doubt in his mind that the mentality of many in the room was as outdated as the décor.
“The conclusion I draw is that I think the rugby world is perhaps not ready to open up,” said Lorenzetti. “There is a world evolving with people who have a different vision, even if this election isn’t worth a rupture.”
Adding that neither he nor his supporters wished to “reform” the way French rugby is run, Lorenzetti said he just wanted to give club owners more of a say. “It seems to me normal that we should be represented.”
Laurent Marti, president of Bordeaux-Begles, was one of those who agreed with Lorenzetti. “I find it logical that those we call the ‘new presidents’ (the name given to those who have used their money to acquire their presidency) should give their advice,” Marti told Midi Olympique. “They can offer something new.”
After a short break for coffee, the delegates returned to the conference suite to talk money. When Paul Goze, LNR president, emerged to face the press he admitted there had been “conflicts” but also an agreement that the TV money should be split 63-37% in favour of the Top 14, as opposed to the 60-40 division in place since 2001.
This will need to be ratified at a later date but in the meantime Goze set out his vision for the Top 14, a vision he entitled ‘Brennus Day’, which will be based on the American Super Bowl. “I had the idea to create such a day after watching everything that happens around the Super Bowl in the USA,” trumpeted Goze. “Even people who know nothing about American Football follow this event.”
Goze’s intention is to make Brennus Day the event in the French sporting calendar with a giant concert the day before the Top 14 final, as well as various entertainments laid on in Paris and the cities of the two clubs contesting the final. The inaugural Brennus Day will be in 2015 and the following year Goze has ambitions to stage it abroad with London and Barcelona mooted as possible venues.
The Top 14 is going places all right but the road could be bumpy. Then again, we’d expect nothing less from French rugby.