There’s a numbers game going on in France at the moment: should there be 12, 14 or even 16 clubs in the top flight?
It’s been the Top 14 since 2005-6, a reduction of two on what had gone before. The reason for the streamlining was evident in the 2004-05 campaign when Auch and Beziers managed just 13 wins between them in their 30 matches, the pair finishing more than 60 points adrift of eventual champions Stade Francais.
In the 2015-16 season it’s Agen (14th) and Oyonnax (13th) who are way off the pace with Oyonnax trailing Stade Francais (12th) by 14 points.
Is the French championship in need of another trim? David Strettle believes it is. In an interview published in Monday’s Midi Olympique, the former Saracens and England wing compared the Top 14 with the Premiership. “Each match (in England) is a real contest because the teams are pretty similar,” explained Strettle. “In this context you learn to manage situations, to play under pressure and to find as a team the ways to win. In the Top 14 it’s a rollercoaster. The standard changes from one week to another. The opposition can vary considerably, the performances also.”
Strettle’s views are shared by many within the French game. The calls for a rugby reformation in have been growing since France’s World Cup drubbing to New Zealand, a humiliation that prompted the FFR and LNR to commission a ten-man panel to examine all aspects of how the sport is structured and run in France.
The commission’s report was delivered earlier this month and it’s being discussed this week by the LNR and FFR who will then make their own recommendations to the Top 14 and ProD2 presidents on May 17. There were 15 measures in the report but the one that has France talking concerns the size of the championship. The commission, which included former France greats Julien Bonnaire and Thomas Castaignède, as well as Stade Francais president Thomas Savare, proposed as its 15th measure a reduction from a Top 14 to a Top 12 for the 2018-19 season.
The issue has split the power-brokers in French rugby. Leading the call for a Top 12 is Toulon director of rugby Bernard Laporte, busily campaigning to be the next president of the FFR. He’s been arguing for such a move for years, saying in 2014: “There are too many professional teams, that is certain. For me, we need to move to a Top 12. That would immediately mean an extra month to focus on the national team.” His views are supported, by among others, Toulouse president Rene Bouscatel and his Clermont counterpart, Eric de Cromières.
But ranged against the supporters of a Top 14 are Racing 92 president Jacky Lorenzetti and Laurent Marti, president of Bordeaux, as well as English-born Simon Gillham, vice-president of Brive. Gillham told Midi Olympique that there is no need to tamper with the Top 14, pointing to the drama of last season when a bitter relegation dogfight went to the last minute of the last match of the regular season, with Brive and Grenoble surviving at the expense of Bayonne.
Which misses the point: the Top 14 has drama but not always quality and every season there is at least one club – sometimes two – who simply aren’t as good as the others. Yet there are some within French rugby, notably Lorenzetti, who actually want the championship expanded to a Top 16. When it was put to the Racing owner this might cause fixture congestion, he retorted: “We play twice a week!” As for player burnout, Lorenzetti said the solution is simple – increase squad sizes to 40.
Such an idea is anathema to Laporte, who claims that a Top 14 (let alone a Top 16) is counter-productive to the development of the national side. As Midi Olympique noted in Monday’s edition, currently the French season comprises 29 Top 14 weekends (including three play-offs), nine European competition weekends and 11 international weekends. Add in the obligatory five weekends of holiday and that’s 54 weeks. Trimming the Top 14 by two would free four weekends, which was the same number in the 2014-15 season on which the Top 14 clashed with Test matches.
Ultimately, it’s TV which may settle the question. Gillham, who as well as being vice-president of Brive, is also director of communications at Vivendi, the mass media company that owns Canal Plus. He told Midi Olympique that cutting the top-flight to 12 clubs would cost Canal Plus between €10m to €15m because they would need to find other content to fill the gap in the schedule. On the other hand, as the paper stated, a Top 12 would mean fewer matches of meaningless mediocrity being broadcast and turning off viewers.
There are pros and cons to both arguments but Canal Plus will certainly give the matter careful consideration. They are currently in the throes of a financial crisis, and according to Vincent Bollore, head of Vivendi, “the chain could lose €400m in 2016”. That prompted Le Figaro to report last week that the company has launched a series of “drastic economic measures” to reduce its outlay, which will send tremors through the corridors of the Top 14. They announced earlier this month that they are accepting bids for four-year broadcasting rights for the season commencing 2019-20. Canal Plus won the bid in January 2014 with a contract worth €74m-a-season, which was double the previous amount paid. The bid this time could be much lower, given that beIN Sports are also looking to cut their costs, leaving the LNR perhaps to adapt to a reduction not just in the size of their championship but also their revenue.