The Top 14 has played host to some of the brightest rugby stars on the planet, but have they always delivered value-for-money to the league's millionnaire owners?
One meelllion dollars! Okay, it’s Euros but that’s the eye-watering price Racing Metro are rumoured to be willing to pay to prise Matt Giteau from Toulon next summer. The Aussie three-quarter has been a roaring success on the Cote d’Azur since arriving from the Brumbies in 2011. But €1,000,000m a season! If Racing president Jacky Lorenzetti does splash the cash then Giteau – currently on around €40,000 a month at Toulon – he will become the best-paid player in Top 14 history. But at least Racing will know they can count on Giteau to produce the goods. That’s not always been the case with French clubs and their big-money signings. Some have been worth every penny but a few have not delivered their weight in Euros…
Dan Carter, Perpignan – €700 000 for seven months [€100,000 a month]
Perpignan are believed to have paid the Kiwi fly-half €700 000 for seven months of his time in 2009-10. He began well, steering the Catalan club to victory over Castres, but a month later in only his fourth Top 14 outing Carter ruptured his Achilles tendon. His season over after just 280 minutes of league rugby – and 29 points – Perpignan coach Jacques Brunel admitted he was “staggered” at the loss of the All Black. Three years later USAP were forced to cut their budget because of financial woes and last season they were relegated to Pro2.
Verdict: Money wasted
Jonny Wilkinson, Toulon – €56 000 a month
The greatest signing in Top 14 history. When the England fly-half arrived at Toulon from Newcastle in 2009 the French club were still flattering to deceive despite all the money invested by Mourad Boudjellal in the preceding three years. And wasn’t signing Wilko a risk? Ravaged by injuries for years some doubted he could survive the rigours of the French season, but the new environment inspired Wilkinson. In his first season he guided Toulon to the European Challenge Cup final and by the time he retired in June 2014 the Cote d’Azur club had won back-to-back Heineken Cup titles and their first Top 14 crown in 22 years under his captaincy.
Verdict: Money well spent
Jonathan Sexton, Racing Metro – €52 000 a month
The Ireland fly-half arrived at Racing with great fanfare but he’s failed to hit the high notes so far in Paris. Just four months into his first season Sexton admitted he was finding it tough to adapt to the different culture and thoughts of quitting were never far from his mind. He stuck it out and finished his first season with a modest haul of 177 league points (ninth in the individual rankings). He’ll definitely be off at the end of his second season but in the short term a broken jaw sustained in Racing’s third game will keep him out until October.
Verdict: Wait and see. He needs to produce something special in his final eight months
Bryan Habana, Toulon – €50 000 a month
A debut season to forget for the South Africa winger. A hamstring injury kept him out of action for four months and in all Habana managed just one try (and one yellow card) in eight league appearances. He also struggled to make much of an impression as Toulon regained their Heineken Cup crown and was best remembered for taking a dive in the final against Saracens, an act for which he later apologised. Rugby Championship duties mean Toulon fans won’t see Habana until the middle of October.
Verdict: Wait and see. Still has two more seasons to turn things around
Carl Hayman, Toulon – €41 000 a month
It’s not often clubs fork out big bucks for forwards but Toulon did that for former All Black prop Carl Hayman in 2010 (as they did a year later with Bakkies Botha, reputedly on the same deal as the Kiwi). After three years with Newcastle the then 30-year-old tighthead arrived in the Mediterranean at the start of the 2010-2011 season. An ever-present in the Toulon pack Hayman has now made over 130 appearances for the club and is one of only three forwards – Botha and Fernandez Lobbe the others – to start all three of Toulon’s triumphant finals in recent seasons. He replaced Wilkinson as captain this season.
Verdict: Money well spent
Juan Martin Hernandez, Racing – €40,000 a month
The first overseas player to win the Top 14’s Player of the Year Award, Hernandez was awarded the honour for helping Stade Francais win the 2007 league title. The Argentine full-back/fly-half then dazzled for the Pumas as they finished third in the 2007 RWC beating France, Scotland and Ireland along the way. Two years later, as he prepared to move across Paris to Racing Metro, one British newspaper argued that Hernandez was the “best rugby player in the world at the moment”. Then came the injuries, first to the back, then the knee, and Hernandez has never been the same player since, scoring just three tries in 56 league appearances during four seasons with Racing.
Verdict: Money wasted
François Steyn, Racing – €25,000 a month
There were times at Racing when Francois Steyn shone in his three-year spell. Towering drop goals and forceful running were hallmarks of his first season in Paris but ultimately his move from South Africa after helping the Boks defeat the Lions in 2009 has to be rated a failure. The conservative coaching of Pierre Berbezier didn’t play to Steyn’s strengths and Racing never reached the Top 14 final despite the presence of the gifted South African centre. A shoulder injury in Steyn’s third season restricted him to eight league starts and he returned home in 2012.
Sonny Bill Williams, Toulon – €27 000 a month
In 2008 the Kiwi abandoned the Canterbury Bulldogs rugby league side for Toulon, arriving in France in a private jet for what would be two seasons on the Cote d’Azur. Williams began his Toulon career with a try against Clermont but was then sidelined for three months with injury.
He returned for the second half of the season but was unable to prevent Toulon finishing in the bottom half of the table. Injuries also disrupted his second season and in total SBW made 25 league appearances for Toulon – scoring four tries – in his two seasons before returning to New Zealand.
Verdict: Money wasted
Byron Kelleher, Toulouse – €21,000 a month
The All Black scrum-half originally signed for Agen but when they were relegated to Pro2 in May 2007 he instead joined Toulouse after the World Cup that autumn. Kelleher enjoyed a dream debut season, helping Toulouse win the Top 14 title & also collecting the Player of the Year award. He was again an important figure when Toulouse won the 2010 Heineken Cup title and he was also a member of the squad that clinched Top 14 the following year. A charismatic and colourful figure, Kelleher’s spell in Toulouse wasn’t without its off-field controversies but he remains one of the club’s most popular overseas’ signings.
Verdict: Money well-spent
*All salaries are net and sourced from French newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche 2010 and 2013