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Peter Bills: Rugby clubs in France are more important than the national team

<b>Talking Rugby...</b> The rugby world&rsquo;s first full 12 month season has just been completed. And it sets a precedent that ought to alarm top class players right around the world.

It’s official!

The rugby world’s first full 12 month season has just been completed. And it sets a precedent that ought to alarm top class players right around the world.

South African lock forward Drickus Hancke and his team-mates at French Top 14 club Montpellier finished their season last Saturday night before a 77,000 audience at the French Championship final in Paris. Alas, it was not a happy ending,

Montpellier losing 15-10 to Stade Toulouse and seeing their chance of winning the famous old trophy for the first time in the club’s history, slip away.

But sadness was allied with exhaustion. “I am absolutely shot, completely finished” admitted Hancke, the former Eastern Province captain. “When you play, you don’t feel it with the buzz and excitement of the game. But when you stop you feel so tired.

“I can tell you, the previous season ended for us at the beginning of May and we had four weeks off. Our first get together, the first meeting of this season for us was on June 1 last year. The final was on June 4 so that is just over a year. It is certainly the longest season of my career.”

Extraordinary. And it perhaps explains why France has never won a Rugby World Cup title. The French clubs make too many demands on the players. By the time they have finished with them, the national side can only pick up the pieces.

Yet this is a merry-go-round to which the players cheerfully subscribe. After all, they don’t complain at the handsome salaries the top players can command; sums such as the reported €1 million enjoyed by former French international Sebastian Chabal and the €750,000 South African Frans Steyn is said to have earned alongside Chabal at Racing Metro 92, the wealthy Paris club.

Hancke isn’t on money anywhere near that exalted level, yet he doesn’t deny playing in France represents “a great lifestyle”. He says “The clubs here do demand a lot from their players. I don’t think there is a harder league to play in than this one. But then, they look after them very well too.

“The club take a lot out of their international players because there is a lot of pride involved. The French are so passionate – they have an intense passion for the game. It is a passion that you don’t see often elsewhere.”

Indeed you don’t and viewing figures for the semi-finals and final of this year’s French Championship underlined the point. Just over 113,000 attended the two semi-finals in Marseille the previous weekend and another 77,000 were in Paris, making a total of 190,000.

That is a very significant number indeed, and the finances with best tickets in Paris for the final costing up to 120 euros and even quite ordinary seats priced at 73 euros, were equally impressive.

The clubs operate on significantly bigger budgets than their English counterparts, with the probable exception of Saracens, the new English champions, and Leicester. Toulouse’s budget is €29.53 million, Clermont Auvergne’s €21.65m. Racing Metro 92 in Paris has a budget of €18.94 million, Montpellier €15.8m, approximately the same as Biarritz Olympique.

Interest in the game throughout France is strong. For the Castres Olympique v Montpellier quarter final, hardly a game between two of the most glamorous sides in France, a TV audience of around 1 million was attracted, even though it was only on satellite TV. As someone said “No New Zealand rugby television audience commands that sort of number.”

Further proof of the interest in the club game compared to international rugby is the fact that ‘L’Equipe’, the widely respected French daily sports paper, sells more copies when the French rugby championship is reaching its climax than on international weekends.

Like soccer clubs in England, rugby clubs in France are much more important than the national team.

Given that fact, I wonder how long it will be before some top players curtail early their international careers to extend the lucrative contracts they have with their clubs or provinces.