Peter Bills: French rugby needs a reality check

For anyone seduced into believing that four French clubs in the last eight of the Heineken Cup reflects the altogether superior quality of rugby being played across the Channel this season, a reality check is required. Either that, or a visit to the men in white coats.

You can use this fact as one arbiter if you wish. Or you can use the other fact that the French national team was utterly destroyed, 59-16 in Paris last November by an Australian side that had just lost to England by a record margin.

As ever, the truth lies somewhere in between the two. But what is undeniable is that this has been, thus far at least, no halcyon season for the game in France. Very far from it, in fact.

Some of the stuff served up in the French Top 14 this season, would invite derision among a Third division audience. Mindlessly negative, boring tactics in which the ball continues to get belted up and down the field all game long is hardly an indicator that the French game has anything much to crow about.

I can tell you now, the one certain thing France’s four Heineken Cup quarter finalists have had in common this season is this. They’ve all played some abject rugby a lot of the time, been excoriated by their own supporters at various stages and felt the lash of their coaches’ tongues.

Maybe the greatest indictment of the French Top 14 is that a club as erratic as Biarritz currently stand fourth, just one win and a bonus point short of second place. There can be no greater rubbishing of the French game this season than that fact.

Half the time, Biarritz are useless. The other half, they’re a potent force with a powerful pack, a speedy back three and a valuable playmaker in Dimitri Yachvili. But any team that puts Damien Traille at fly half and tries to convince onlookers that he’s a serious operator and not a joke, must be having a laugh.

Biarritz are this season what they are every season – all over the place. They’re a disgrace one week, sublime the next. Yet such traits ought to condemn them to mid-table mediocrity, not a club with aspirations to the leadership of the Top 14. That says everything about this devalued league.

Take Perpignan, another Heineken quarter finalist. Champions of France in 2009 and runners-up last year, they’ve won only 7 of their 16 Championship games this season, which leaves them nearer the bottom than top of the table.

And in those 16 matches, they have achieved the magnificent total of, er, one bonus point. Yet this is a team that boasts one of France’s finest attacking centres, Maxime Mermoz. It’s a matter of conjecture how long he will stay at so misfiring a club as this.

Toulouse are top of the French Championship yet inexplicably collapsed in a heap at London Wasps last Sunday, which condemned them to a tricky away quarter final against Biarritz in San Sebastian. How on earth they did that with a full strength side against a poor team that had lost limply at Glasgow the previous week, defies belief.

But then, even though they’re Championship leaders in France, Toulouse have already lost five and drawn one of their 16 games. They haven’t torn up any trees thus far in the season.

That leaves Toulon, conquerors of Munster and destined for a quarter final against Perpignan in Barcelona. Again, a league record of nine wins and seven defeats hardly suggests immortality.

But Toulon reveal the reason why the French clubs have by far the greatest number of representatives in the Heineken quarter finals. They have overseas players coming out of their ears. From Englishmen Jonny Wilkinson and Paul Sackey to Australians George Smith and Matt Henjak to South African Joe van Niekerk, a couple of redoubtable Georgian props and assorted other foreigners, Toulon are more like an international XV.

It is that expertise and quality that has taken them to the last 8, not native French flair.

The French Top 14 is chiefly a battle between the clubs with the biggest budgets. The rugby played is, in the main, old style, tired and boring. It amounts to players beating each other up among the forwards and trying to win penalties from which a handful of supreme kickers extract maximum advantage.

The refereeing is uniquely hopeless, crassly inefficient. And for all this, players earn handsome salaries.

If English clubs are looking for lessons on success, they would do well to look elsewhere. Only vast sums of money have propelled four French clubs into the Heineken quarter finals. It’s got nothing to do with the quality of rugby they play.