By Alan Dymock
FRANCE IS a place of cruel and lucrative circumstance, we are told. A place where teams allegedly have to balance slugging it out like dribbling Neanderthals all week just to get on the pitch on a Saturday, shaving years off their life but earning cave-loads of cash to do so.
Certainly it seems worth the effort – or the mettle testing, as the bolder players will see it – because of the financial incentive. However, for players leaving the UK and Ireland to compete in the Top 14 it can have serious repercussions for the Six Nations sides.
Next season, as has been the case for as long as any elephant can remember, there will be arguments between home nations and French clubs about player release.
This week Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate revealed that they have a clause in their contracts with Racing Metro that affords them time with Wales next season, with the centre saying: “The important thing is if you want to carry on playing international rugby you get full international release in your contract. And I know myself and Dan have ensured that with Racing Metro.”
The players had been urged by coach Warren Gatland to have such an agreement and those two have done so. It is a savvy move, but one which some in France may not have the benefit of.
Jonny Sexton may not have felt compelled to ask for such a deal, though his pay packet is so large it is likely that Racing would have agreed to almost any of the Irishman’s demands. He almost certainly does have a clause, but anyway, he’ll just want to settle and impress his new bosses, letting others do the fighting if they haven’t already. By the same token Jim Hamilton of Scotland may not have pushed for such a clause, perhaps purely because he wanted to secure his financial future and would hope Montpellier would not be too guarded of their players come international time. There are others who have been abroad longer, though.
The issue is one that may not affect England in the short-term, with no France-based players currently listed in their Elite squad. This may be due to the wrangling needed to get the likes of the Armitage brothers of Toulon and Luke Narraway of Perpignan back over, but every single season, regardless of the form of any of these players, England are an injury crisis away from banging their heads against a French wall.
Wales do not have the luxury of the depth English professional rugby enjoys, and so they must tangle with bureaucracy and French millionaires every season in order to ensure the likes of Mike Phillips (Bayonne), James Hook and Luke Charteris (both Perpignan) are free, with the prospect of more strife should they want to bring in Lee Byrne (Clermont Auvergne) or Aled Brew (Biarritz), too.
Of course, sometimes there is minimal fuss. The first time Nathan Hines retired from international rugby it was because he could not ensure his release from Perpignan, amongst other issues in ALba. He signed a new deal in 2006 and the problem seemed to disappear. To that end, there have rarely been too many issues in Scotland with getting players back off their Gallic pals, and recently Johnnie Beattie, Max Evans and Alasdair Strokosch have been free to travel. The hope is that big-named, big-boned lock Richie Gray is as free to come and go once November nears and Castres are into their stride.
Mind you, with the rigours and figures involved with playing in France, you can understand how some players yearn for the comforts of home while they are away. When your ambition is sated it is nice to have an easier ride.