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.

Suggested Topics
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn