French rugby's powers-that-be want to make the JIFF regulations stricter to stop the flood of foreign players into the Top 14

French clubs aren’t stupid. When the JIFF (Joueurs Issus des Filières de Formation) rules were introduced in 2010 it didn’t take them long to work out the best way to get round them.

First, a reminder of those rules. The Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) introduced them because the then president, Pierre-Yves Revol, and his deputy, Thierry Perez, were alarmed at the number of overseas players flooding the French game. “From the start the idea was a wish to have more French players in the Top 14 in order to increase the reservoir (of talent) for the France XV,” explained Perez, in an interview last week with Midi Olympique.

The new rules stipulated that for the 2010-11 season the Top 14 squads must have 40% (14 out of 35 players) of their squad who were JIFF-qualified; in other words, players who had spent three seasons at a French club’s youth academy before turning 21 or who had been licensed to play in France for five seasons before the age of 23. From 2013-14, the percentage of JIFFs rose from 40 to 55%, and as of this season the LNR has the power to fine clubs that fail to field a match-day squad containing a minimum of 12 JIFFs.

Top 14

Strict: Clubs can be fined if they don’t have 12 French-qualified players in a match-day squad. Photo: Getty Images

The introduction of the rules appeared to have a dramatic effect on the number of overseas players being signed by the Top 14 clubs. In 2011-12, for example, 61 foreign players were recruited into the French top flight, but by 2014-15 season it was down to 34.

But behind the scenes the clubs were busy altering their recruitment policy. They dispatched their scouts across the globe to identify young talent and, when spotted, these teenagers were enrolled in the clubs’ academies to begin their JIFF apprenticeship.

Take the Clermont ‘Espoirs’ (youth) squad. Of the 59 players listed on the club’s website there are two Argentines, five Georgians, two South Africans, three Fijians and one player from each of England, the USA, Canada, Samoa and Portugal. The Englishman is second-row and former Northampton Saint Karl Wilkins, 20, who signed a three-year deal with Clermont in the summer of 2014. A year from now, therefore, Wilkins will have qualified as a JIFF and will no longer count as a foreigner. He will also be eligible to play for France.

Clermont Auvergne

Eclectic mix: Clermont Auvergne have many foreign players in their squad. Photo: Getty Images

Not surprisingly, many in France are concerned with the way the Top 14 clubs are – legitimately, it must be emphasised – sidestepping the rules that were designed to benefit the national team. “I raised the alarm two years ago,” Jean-Louis Caussinus told Midi Olympique.

Caussinus, the president of the Association of Elite Rugby, continued: “Today, the clubs recruit young players from overseas and integrate them into their academies… the situation is really worrying. We are on red alert. Soon, French players won’t have any access to the academies.”

As this column has stated previously, and as Midi Olympique reiterated last week, in a sense the clubs can’t be blamed for looking overseas for fresh talent. What the paper described as the “virtual disappearance” of school sport has left a generation of young French boys deficient in technical skills compared to their counterparts from the southern hemisphere. As Franck Corrihons, the technical advisor at Grenoble, admitted “it’s because of necessity, not pleasure” that clubs overlook home-grown youth. “It’s unfortunate but a fact that… from the U12s age group up, they’re behind in terms of motor skills and coordination.”

Bernard Laporte

Youth work: Bernard Laporte wants better coaching for young players. Photo: Getty Images

Bernard Laporte, campaigning to become the next president of the FFR, has promised to hire as many as 200 coaches to improve the technical skills of France’s young players but that will take time, even if he’s elected to the role in December.

In the meantime, Midi Olympique says the LNR are considering changing the JIFF rules, so that to qualify a player must have spent two seasons playing in a junior league before the age of 18. “That could be interesting,” an LNR source told the paper. “The European court has recently forbidden clubs to recruit minors, so it will be impossible for clubs to circumvent the problem.” * According to Midi Olympique there are currently 310 JIFFs in Fédérale 1, the third division, but if the change was made then next season that number would drop dramatically to 49.

Perez would support such a measure, and he’d also go further than imposing purely financial penalties on clubs. “Rather than hitting them in the pocket, I would prevent any club who doesn’t respect the regulations from qualifying for the play-offs,” he said. “That would be a far greater handicap than a fine.”

* FIFA bans all international transfers of players under 18, except those within the European Union.

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