By Gavin Mortimer
Paul Goze claims he doesn’t play poker but the English clubs have called his bluff.
The president of the LNR, the body that runs the Top 14, said a fortnight ago that French clubs participation in next year’s Heineken Cup was contingent on the presence of England’s finest. If the image the craggy-faced Goze likes to cultivate is anything to go by – that of a tough take-no-prisoners chieftain who dresses all in black – he probably assumed the English clubs would fall into line, slinking back into the Heineken Cup to take their place in next year’s tournament.
But the English clubs stood firm, and while they “pursue other options”, the LNR have signed [last Saturday] a four-year accord with the FFR that, among other things, commits them to the governance of the ERC.
Goze has already come under attack from some of the clubs for the manner in which the LNR quailed in the face of the FFR. Jacky Lorenzetti, owner of Racing Metro, allegedly stormed out of the meeting a fortnight ago, infuriated that the LNR had reneged on the deal to form a breakaway tournament with the English clubs. Mourad Boudjellal, the man who pulls the string in Toulon, was against the Rugby Champions Cup, but he’s rounded on the LNR nevertheless, accusing them of allowing themselves to be bullied, threatened, manipulated – call it what you will – by the FFR.
In an interview with a local newspaper last week, Boudjellal said if it had been up to him, he would have responded to the FFR’s belligerence by withdrawing his players from the France squad for the Six Nations. Strong words but knowing Boudjellal he would have backed them up.
Goze, on the other hand, is fast gaining a reputation as a man not to be trusted – not by the French clubs, the English clubs and now not by Canal Plus. In last Monday’s edition of Midi Olympique, the paper declared that the LNR had agreed a €65m a season deal with Canal Plus that would see the broadcaster obtain the rights for the Top 14 from 2015 to 2018. It appeared a good deal for the LNR, more than twice the €31.7m that Canal paid for the rights in 2013-14.
Twenty four hours later the deal was dead. Instead Goze has put the rights out to tender. Admitting it was a “risk” to reject Canal’s offer [put into context, the €65m offered by Canal is €20m more per season than the deal agreed between BT Sport and Premiership Rugby 15 months ago], Goze was confident the rights would be sold for a considerably higher sum. Some of the club owners, such as Bayonne chairman Alain Afflelou, have mooted a sum in the region of €120m, but it’s believed Goze has his sights on a minimum of €80m. Asked if he has been in contact with beIN Sport, the affiliate of Al-Jazeera, which broadcasts many French football matches, Goze replied in the affirmative. But he denied also that he was guilty of arrogance towards Canal, the LNR’s broadcast partner since 1995, saying he just wants to get the best deal for the Top 14.
But Canal Plus are allegedly furious with a source telling Midi Olympique in that inimitable Gallic way: “It’s like a couple who have been in love for 20 years…[but] on Monday the long love story ended in tears.”
One coach at a Top 14 club told me last week he was surprised at the LNR’s stance, adding that Canal Plus are well regarded by the players for their comprehensive coverage of French rugby. The broadcaster has also built up a big audience among the French public with more than 800,000 people tuning in last month to watch Brive beat Toulouse on a Saturday afternoon. Impressive? Put it this way, when Leicester played Northampton in the Aviva Premiership earlier this season, an average of 179,000 viewers watched on BT Sport.
Goze risks the wrath of Canal Plus in pursuit of beIN bucks. No doubt he can’t get out of his head the fact that in recent years beIN have invested €400m in sports broadcasting, €150m of which has found its way into the French Football League’s coffers.
What the LNR seem oblivious to is the French public. Canal Plus has five million subscribers, beIN 1.5m, although according to an article in Le Figaro last week, they hope acquiring the Top 14 rights would add another half million to that figure. Maybe, maybe not. French sports fans are traditionalists, much more than Anglo-Saxons, and already there is a rising tide of public anger at the turn of events.
All bids for the Top 14 broadcasting rights have to be in by January 13 with the LNR promising a decision will be made within 48 hours. One of those bidders is sure to be beIN but will they come up with an offer agreeable to the LNR? For the moment they’re keeping their cards close to their chest. Goze meanwhile continues to claim he doesn’t play poker.