How France and the rest square the circle

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The Independent Online

Every year, Bernard Laporte looks wistfully across the English Channel and complains to the French Federation that the grass in England is greener. Compared with Clive Woodward, Laporte, the coach of France, is a guardian who has been denied custody of his charges.

Every year, Bernard Laporte looks wistfully across the English Channel and complains to the French Federation that the grass in England is greener. Compared with Clive Woodward, Laporte, the coach of France, is a guardian who has been denied custody of his charges.

He watches them play on weekends and hopes they come to no harm, but apart from the odd get-together on a Monday he has no access to his squad other than a few days prior to a Test match.

Under the élite squad programme agreed between the RFU and the Zurich Premiership, no player will feature in more than 32 matches in a season, and there will be an off-season of 11 weeks. Andy Robinson will see his squad for 16 days in addition to the release week before a Test. The 12 clubs in the Premiership play 22 matches from September to May, and also compete in Europe.

The 16 teams in the French championship play 32 matches from August to June. Taking in Europe and the international programme, a leading player could make as many as 53 appearances in a season. The club championship, which used to have two pools, now has 16 in one league, playing home and away, adding 10 games to the domestic season.

It prompted Fabien Pelous to remark: "If being a professional means clocking in at a factory every day then I don't want any part of it.'' After the players threatened a strike, the federation agreed that next season the championship will be reduced to 14 teams. The players who went on the summer tour of the US and Canada were excused the first three rounds of the club campaign.

The English and French professionals earn their bread and butter through the clubs, the Welsh from the four regions. The Irish and the Scots are centrally contracted. While Wales want the Celtic League upgraded, Ireland's provinces see the Heineken Cup as their ultimate goal. Brian O'Driscoll will not play in the first three weeks of the Celtic League and will not make more than 28 appearances a year. Tomorrow Wales will announce a new age-group development structure, a step towards a "rugby charter'' that they hope will settle the differences between the clubs, regions, players and the union.

Laporte has signed a contract designed to keep him as the coach for the next World Cup, in France, in 2007. Just as Woodward had, the man he so envied.

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