England's leading clubs have long cast an envious eye across the Channel at the financial powerhouses of the French game, who routinely splash upwards of £12m on players' salaries and poach the odd half-decent name – Jonny Wilkinson, James Haskell, Riki Flutey – as a consequence. Only this week, the Leicester coach Richard Cockerill could be heard bemoaning the "stark reality" of the divide in purchasing power between his own club, forced to operate on a salary cap of around £4m, and Clermont Auvergne, who have grown accustomed to spending a whole lot more and saw the fruits of their largesse in last week's 40-point display against the Midlanders.
All this is about to change, with the France-bound gravy train finally running out of track. Yesterday, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby – the body responsible for administering the elite Top 14 domestic competition on the other side of the water – announced it would introduce a salary cap of its own from the start of next season. With the all-important figure set at €8m (a little over £7m), the playing field will not level itself out. However, the English clubs will no longer find themselves clambering up the equivalent of Everest's south-east ridge every time the Heineken Cup comes around.
In another development, the Top 14 clubs will have to draw 40 per cent of their players from French academies from next season, rising to 60 per cent ahead of the 2012-13 campaign. This is designed to address a shortage of international talent in certain positions, most notably in the front row, and will force the likes of Brive, Biarritz and the two Parisian clubs, Stade Français and Racing-Metro 92, to think carefully before casting their recruitment nets the length and breadth of the British Isles.
Simon Gillham, the chief executive at Brive, was broadly supportive of the measures. "Provided it is done in a respectful and legal way, we totally understand," he said. "The national team is at the tip, but this must be done properly." He also pointed out, quite rightly, that "everybody finds a way round salary caps". This has certainly been the case in England down the years.
Yesterday's Heineken Cup disciplinary hearings into the outbreak of violence at the end of last weekend's pool match between Ulster and Stade Français at Ravenhill were adjourned for 24 hours when the Parisian team's scrum-half Julien Dupuy and prop David Attoub, both accused of gouging the Lions flanker Stephen Ferris, suffered travel delays. However, two other Frenchmen, the Brive pair of Arnaud Mela and Guillaume Ribes, were banned for seven weeks and four weeks respectively for their transgressions against London Irish on the same day. Mela, who has something of a record, was suspended for punching an opponent while Ribes was punished for kicking.
There was better news for the Ospreys wing Tommy Bowe, one of the star turns on last summer's Lions tour of South Africa. The Irishman had been cited for a dangerous tackle on the Viadana wing Kaine Robertson, but Judge Jeff Blackett, the Rugby Football Union's chief disciplinary officer, decided that while an offence had indeed been committed, it would not have warranted a dismissal had it been spotted by officials at the time. Bowe is free to play against the Italians in this weekend's return fixture.
Two England internationals, the centre Ayoola Erinle and the flanker Magnus Lund, will feature for Biarritz in tonight's Heineken Cup tie at Newport-Gwent Dragons. The Basques are the only unbeaten team in the competition and will be warm favourites for the top seeding in the quarter-finals if they survive their awkward trip to Rodney Parade.
Newcastle, who have three straight wins in the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup, travel to Montauban with a much-changed pack featuring the prop Micky Ward, the lock Mark Sorenson and the flanker Ed Williamson. Worcester, unlikely to win their group after home defeats by Montpellier and Connacht, take on the latter in Galway this evening without a significant number of front-line players, including the captain Pat Sanderson, the Wallaby full-back Chris Latham and the All Black centre Sam Tuitupou.
* Dave Walder kicked all Wasps' points as they won 12-3 at Bayonne in the Amlin Challenge Cup last night. Walder's success with the boot – he also scored 12 points in last weekend's victory over the French side at Adams Park – meant the fit-again Danny Cipriani did not get a chance to come off the bench.
English players at French clubs
Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)
James Haskell (Stade Francais)
Riki Flutey, Andy Goode (Brive)
Tom Palmer (Stade Francais)
Steve Thompson (Brive)
Magnus Lund (Biarritz)
Perry Freshwater (Perpignan)
Shaun Perry (Brive)
Dan Luger (Nice Côte d'Azur)
Joe El Abd (Toulon)
Jonny Howard (Bayonne)
Iain Balshaw (Biarritz)
Jamie Noon, Simon Hughes (Brive)
Tom May (Toulon)
Phil Christophers (Castres)
Nick Adams (Montauban)
Ollie Smith (Montpelier)
Dan Scarborough (Racing Metro)
Ayoola Erinle (Biarritz)
Ollie Phillips (Stade Francais)