With Toulouse shamefully going out of Europe in Round 5 and countless other sides struggling in the Challenge Cup, is it time for them to forfeit their places?
There will be few more meaningless matches this season than Saracens trip to Toulouse on Saturday. The Premiership champions have an unassailable lead at the top of Pool One and are therefore assured of a home tie in April’s quarter-final, so there is nothing to play for when they travel to the south of France, except, of course, the proverbial pride.
If only Toulouse had shown a smidgen of pride in this season’s Champions Cup then Saturday’s clash could have been the mouthwatering encounter that back in November we all anticipated. Instead the four-times European champions are bottom of the pool with one win from five. So poor have they been that they succumbed to Oyonnax on Saturday; take nothing away from the Oyo Men, it was a performance of admirable spirit given their chaotic few months that have seen the sacking of coach Olivier Azam and then, on Friday, the departure of their marquee summer signing, former All Black scrum-half Piri Weepu.
But Toulouse, level on points with Racing 92 at the head of the Top 14 table, just weren’t up for it in cold, snowy Oyonnax. They conceded a try after just 25 seconds and the final score of 32-14 should shame everyone at the club.
What is it about the French and Europe? Every season this happens in the Champions Cup, one of their clubs just goes through the motions. Last season it was Castres (Top 14 champions in 2013) who lost all six matches, the season before that Perpignan won just once, while in the 2011-12 Heineken Cup, Castres and Montpellier managed just two victories between them.
As for the Challenge Cup, that’s fast becoming a French farce. Pau, Agen and La Rochelle are all bottom of their pools, with quite possibly Grenoble the only club who will reach the quarter-finals. That will be an improvement on last season, when not one of the eight French teams in the competition progressed from the pool stage.
It had been hoped that the introduction of automatic qualification for the Challenge Cup winners into the following season’s Champions Cup would act as an incentive for the French, but while it has clearly galvanised Grenoble – and to a lesser extent, Montpellier, and their squad of seasoned internationals – it hasn’t had the desired effect elsewhere.
The EPCR should reduce the number of French clubs in the Challenge Cup, omitting the two newly-promoted clubs from ProD2. This season, that’s Pau and Agen, whose only focus is on league survival and are currently 12th and 14th respectively in the league. They care not a jot about a minor European competition when at stake is their place in the highly lucrative Top 14.
Their places should be awarded to two clubs from eastern Europe, where rugby’s roots are growing but still need careful nurturing. But seeing what Russian outfit Enisei-STM have achieved in this season’s Challenge Cup – victories over Brive and Newcastle – the EPCR should give the chance to clubs from Romania and Georgia.
As for the Champions Cup, France’s representation should be reduced to five clubs. They don’t deserve additional places, not when a rich seam of Gallic disdain runs through the history of the competition. Domestic rugby will always take precedence in France and for all but the very biggest and richest Top 14 clubs, European action is an unwanted distraction. Instead an extra English club and ProD2 side should play in the Champions Cup. They might not win it, but they’ll play with more heart than Toulouse have shown this season.