The rise of the Top 14 has been inverted by the steady decline of the French national team but new JIFF regulations may be about to stem the tide
Midi Olympique’s XV of the Weekend in Monday’s edition was a United Nations of rugby talent. England’s Nick Abendanon at full-back, a couple of Kiwis in Conrad Smith and Casey Laulala in the centre, Argentina’s Juan Imhoff on one wing, South Africa’s Demetri Catrakilis at fly-half and a pack that featured a Uruguayan, Fijian, Samoan and a Georgian in the pack.
Oh, and there were six Frenchman, although only two, Pau winger Louis Dupichot and Castres flanker Mathieu Babillot, could be described as an up-and-coming talent. For French fans looking to the future it didn’t make for cheerful reading.
Such selections help explain the Ligue nationale de rugby’s (LNR) confirmation last week of what president Paul Goze called a “small revolution”. As of the 2017-18 season France’s 30 professional clubs in the Top 14 and ProD2 must name a minimum of 14 Jiff-qualified  players in their 23-man matchday squads. They’ll be docked points if they don’t. Just a couple for those clubs falling one or two players short of the 14, but up to 10 points at the end of the season if they field 10 or fewer on average.
In a league as tight as the Top 14 ten points could mean the difference – as it would have last season – between finishing first and fifth at the end of the regular season. Even losing two points would have seen Toulon drop from second to fourth in the table.
The other measure announced by Goze further underlined the LNR’s determination to promote French talent over foreign imports: from next season onwards each club’s 35-strong squad will be restricted to 16 non-Jiff players, and, additionally, replacements signed on short-term contracts for injured players (known as medical jokers) will be included in the 16. Hitherto this hasn’t been the case, and it’s provided clubs with a loophole for recruiting more overseas players at the expense of homegrown youngsters.
Goze’s mini revolution has been greeted with general approval by the clubs, most of whom recognise that the decline of the France national team had to be arrested after the humiliation of the 2015 World Cup, when Les Bleus suffered a record 62-13 thrashing at the hands of New Zealand.
“It’s good,” commented Jacky Lorenzetti, president of Top 14 champions Racing 92. “I look favourably on it. It won’t make a difference this season but then it will quickly evolve and lead us in the right direction.”
Stade Francais president echoed those sentiments, and said that his only regret was that the LNR had “given in to pressure” and agreed that players recruited by clubs to replace the 30 internationals named in France’s elite squad at the start of the season would fall outside the Jiff quotas.
Eric de Cromières, president of Clermont, told Midi Olympique that of his club’s 23-man squad selected for the recent match against Racing, 18 were Jiff-qualified. Nonetheless, he added, he was pleased that the new regulations would force other clubs to fall in line for the benefit of the national team.
There was, however, a note of caution from Lorenzetti. “I think that certain clubs will prefer to lose points rather than play their Jiffs,” he said. He didn’t name names but drew attention to the fact that when the clubs and the LNR sat down in the summer to thrash out an agreement, two presidents were conspicious by their absence: Mourad Boudjellal and Mohed Altrad.
The presidents of Toulon and Montpellier may have given the meeting a miss but miss the Jiff targets from next season onwards and the pair will lose points, and possibly prestige.