For once venerable clubs in the Top 14, relegation can mean staring into the financial abyss as Biarritz, Bourgoin and Narbonne are starting to find out the hard way...
It’s not been the most auspicious season for the ProD2 in France. For a start, Lyon ran away with the title from day one, clinching the crown on April 1 with yet another all-too-easy victory. Being crowned champions a full six weeks before the end of the regular season gives some indication as to the disparity in quality between Lyon and the other 15 sides in the French second division.
On Saturday Aurillac meet Bayonne in the play-off final to discover who will join Lyon in the Top 14 next season. It should be a good contest but whatever the outcome the real drama will happen the following week when Biarritz, Bourgoin and Narbonne learn if they’re to be relegated to the semi-professional ranks of Federale 1. If they are, they’ll join a fourth ProD2 club, Tarbes, who were relegated earlier in the season.
The announcement last Friday by the Direction Nationale d’Aide et de Contrôle de Gestion [DNACG], colloquially known as the ‘financial gendarme‘ of professional rugby in France, that the trio of venerable clubs were to relegated as a punishment for financial mismanagement sent shockwaves through the French game. Between them Biarritz, Tarbes and Narbonne have won the French championship on eight occasions while Bourgoin were runners-up in 1997.
It was only six years ago that Biarritz were in the Heineken Cup final, and it’s four since they beat Toulon to win the Challenge Cup. Yet unless their appeal succeeds next week the club that until recently contained such top-class talent as Imanol Harinordoquy, Iain Balshaw and Dimitri Yachvili will next season be playing against Bobigny and Cognac in front of a few hundred people.
The French are sad but at the same time there’s little sympathy for the plight of the quartet of clubs. At the weekend La Depeche, the newspaper that serves Toulouse and the surrounding region, ran an article in which it asked the rhetorical question ‘should the DNACG be congratulated for its draconian punishment?’ Their answer: “Yes, even if it’s taken such a long time, because what’s at stake is the credibility of a professional [rugby] world that has sometimes appeared to be that in name only.”
Bourgoin have been flirting with financial disaster for a while, according to Monday’s edition of Midi Olympique. With a budget of just four million euros, Bourgoin have run up a deficit of €1m, despite the fact that they were relegated to Fédérale 1 in the summer of 2012 for similar financial ineptitude.
The DNACG have run out of patience, as they have with Biarritz, whose accountants have been working overtime to keep the club afloat ever since they were relegated from the Top 14 two years ago. The Basque club cut its budget from €16.7 m to €11.7m following the demotion, with some players seeing their wages slashed by 40 percent as the club prepared for life without the television riches of the Top 14. That had little effect and in May 2015 it was reported that players hadn’t been paid their full salary for the previous month amid talk of a €2m financial hole at the heart of the club. There was an attempt to merge Biarritz with Bayonne last summer, a sensible option given the proximity of the two clubs and the concomitant problems of trying to attract commercial partners, but parochialism won out over pragmatism.
According to Midi Olympique Biarritz need to find €600,000 in the next few days if they’re to stave off relegation to Federale 1, while the paper says Narbonne’s shortfall “is estimated to be between €300,000 and €600,000”. The man in charge of Narbonne, former Wallaby flanker Rocky Elsom, had the chance to sell the club to a Qatari Investment Fund in December, but chose not to. This created what Midi Olympique described as ‘tensions’ in both the club and the town, with local businesses now scrabbling around in an attempt to come up with the money. But even if they do, Narbonne may still be relegated if they can’t convince the DNACG that the same hole won’t appear next season.
If the three appeals fail then Provence, who finished bottom of the ProD2, will be spared the drop, while the two losing semi-finalists in the Federale 1 play-offs, Massy et Bourg-en-Bresse, are likely to be promoted.
As ever it’s the players concerned who suffer most in such situations. The news of Bourgoin’s punishment broke on the same day the squad departed for their summer holiday, meaning there’ll be some worried young men sitting on their beach towels this week.
There are times when the life of a professional rugby player isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.