As much as I love the Heineken Cup, so far this season it has taught us a cruel message – that the French really know their onions. With just two English teams (double the count of last season) and, well, rather more French ones progressing beyond the group stages, might it be time to doff our caps to a superior rugby nation?
Perhaps not yet. They were, lest we forget, on the end of a knee-trembling spanking at the hands of a rampant Australian side in the autumn. And England, as much as I hate to bring it up, did beat those same Wallabies in relative comfort.
However, as we have known for a while, the French national set-up is one of the rugby world's more idiosyncratic and inconsistent. The clubs though, they are different. We like to gossip and speculate about crazy owners and even crazier salaries. We like to dismiss the French as wonderful one minute, horrible the next; beating teams with unparalleled flair or unparalleled violence but, actually, where the top clubs are concerned, those days are largely dead.
It's true, you are more likely to get rich in French rugby and you are also more likely to get chinned in the process, but that is no longer all the place has to offer. Albeit a bit late, professionalism is being embraced in what – despite blokes being paid – remained an atmosphere with a wholly amateur feel for so many years. While it might be a touch ambitious to put the "new" French approach on a par with the top English clubs in terms of organisation, it is, I am sure, safe to declare them "proper" pros.
Speaking to friends playing over there, there still seems to be a big emphasis on playing on "feel", as opposed to playing according to research carried out. This is a far more reactive approach but, in the interests of humility and improvement, surely it is reasonable enough that we learn what we can from those achieving more in our field. Iain Balshaw of Biarritz told me something else interesting: "The coaches just concentrate on what we are trying to achieve in general, not the odd little mistake. Appraisals will be frank but there is nobody being torn apart for dropping the odd ball or giving away the odd penalty. It is far more relaxed and positive than the analysis in England."
I suppose a sensible blend of detailand sweeping principle is the answer. With the game becoming so complicated and the rules, referees and playing staff being scrutinised more than ever, I find it refreshing to see the top teams in Europe keeping old principles alive. The likes of Leicester, Toulouse, Biarritz and, these days, Toulon put huge emphasis on the scrummage, on tackling hard and on being confrontational.
I recently asked the Toulon second row Kris Chesney how much analysis they did during the week: "We do a bit, mate, but really we just commit to each other and commit to bashing the hell out of the men we're up against." This is a simple, brutish, pure approach to a sport which is becoming more complex by the week. No wonder he enjoys it there so much – thinking never was a strength of his.
At least when the All Blacks come over here and beat everyone we can use the "too many games" excuse, or the old "insufficient preparation time" chestnut. But the Top 14 is even longer than the Aviva Premiership, so no get-outs there. Historically these periods of dominance move in cycles; Leicester and Wasps spent a while monopolising proceedings, Toulouse seem to have been there or thereabouts since time began and the French clubs won't dominate forever.
If you ask 100 Englishmen, 99 will tell you with great confidence that the Top 14 is an unsustainable league; that sort of cash cannot last. Certainly,I can understand the sheer shock factor involved in turning on the television to see Toulon playing in the Heineken Cup. They are supposed to be the well-behaved new boys: all intimidated and sacrificial. Instead, what we see is an NFL franchise minus the helmets. Razzmatazz abounds and rugby galacticos appear in almost every position. Then, cheekily, they go on to take Munster apart. The audacity is astonishing, and this was all made possible, of course, by money. But why is it unsustainable?
Some people look at a big dog and baulk at what it must cost to feed him. I drive past big houses and wonder what it must cost to fix the roof or keep the place warm. I can, for now, afford to feed my humongous pet dog, so I will continue to do so.
Presumably, these chaps who pour all these euros into rugby were savvy enough to earn it all, so let's assume they're savvy enough not to throw it away again. We will have our time again, hopefully this year, but let's not just sit still and wait for the circle of life to deliver us to European victory,let's take every opportunity to learn, even if it means looking to the French for help. Actually, that's an unsustainable concept itself; let's just commit to bashing them.Reuse content