Blues becoming poor relations
French revolution giving Leinster Heineken hangover
CAN Leinster and Munster overcome the reasonable financial constraints handed down by the money men of the Irish Rugby Football Union to once again make an impact at the business end of the Heineken Cup?
For sure, this worthy competition is getting more difficult to capture with each passing year as legions of southern hemisphere internationals make their way north on the scent of ‘filthy lucre’.
For the French, there is no salary ceiling. The sky is the limit. The question is: can you buy success? Can the lure of money lead to the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow competition?
“Some of the French teams are operating at a different level of finance at the moment,” said Leinster captain Leo Cullen.
The French representation in the Heineken Cup has risen from six to seven clubs, Leinster unlucky enough to have drawn two of the most powerful in French champions Clermont- Auvergne and their current League leaders Racing-Metro 92.
“It is a different model. They are not restricted in the number of overseas players they can have. We can have five. There is no point in us having 15 Samoans on the team. It wouldn’t work for the Irish team,” said Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson.
There is more than a whiff of money from a Racing club transformed into French title contenders by the acquisition of seriously talented players in France captain Lionel Nallet and Sebastien Chabal, Springbok Frans Steyn, first-class Italians in Mirco Bergamasco and Andrea le Cicero and Puma sensation Juan-Martin Hernandez.
This is a level of purchasing power above and beyond the rations of the Irish provinces, even South Africanloaded Ulster. “There is no salary cap in Toulon or Racing Metro.
It is my understanding that once you don’t go bust, you are okay in France,” stated Dawson. “Our situation is more acute this season because we have drawn two of them in the one group.
More and more of the French teams are buying into the Heineken Cup.
“If you look at Toulon and Racing Metro, you can compare both of them to Chelsea and Manchester City in that they have tried to buy instant success.
“You get an owner with very deep pockets. He isn’t going to hang around forever. You purchase success in order to build a profile and then turn around and build the business model from there.”
Leinster are not alone in being landed into a so-called ‘Group of Death’. Munster will have to face down Guinness Premiership leaders London Irish, Magners League champions, and super-wealthy Toulon.
“It isn’t going to be easy. You have Toulon, who have the best that money can buy at this stage,” remarked Munster coach Tony McGahan, earlier in the week.
The French clubs have been able to draw world names to their league because of what many see as their unsustainable spending, well above the ¤5m salary cap permitted in England.
According to Dawson, the salary cap across the Irish Sea, “keeps them within our grasp. We are well up there with the English clubs. Competing with them isn’t a problem.”
However, the Guinness Premiership and Magners League have fallen behind with many players moving to France – Jonny Wilkinson, Paul Sackey, Dean Schofield and Rory Lamont to Toulon, Magnus Lund to Biarritz, Jason White to Clermont-Auvergne, Scott Murray to Castres, Perry Freshwater at Perpignan, Dan Scarborough at Racing- Metro, Jamie Robinson in Agen, Shaun Perry and Jamie Noon to Brive, James Haskell and Hugo Southwell to Stade Francais.
This migration of workers is given greater emphasis by the movement of overseas players – normally destined for the home nations because English is the first language – who have flown to France for the greater financial rewards.
In terms of Leinster’s Heineken Cup Pool, Springboks Marius Joubert and Brent Russell, and All Black Sione Lauaki are resident at Clermont- Auvergne. South African Francois Steyn and Puma Juan-Martin Hernandez were persuaded to join Racing- Metro 92.
Until last Saturday, coach Joe Schmidt could have been forgiven for wondering was he in his right mind when he agreed to swap the luxury of Clermont for a three-year term at cash-tightened Leinster.
It was only then that he witnessed what can be achieved when the commitment of players to the team ethic was matched by the level of support at Aviva Stadium. In the immediate aftermath of the 2009 Heineken Cup final, Brian O’Driscoll publicly professed what he has always privately held within: “I love Leinster,” he shouted.
Money can’t buy you enduring love. It can buy you the right players at the wrong price for an instant hit. Toulon and Racing Metro have taken this heavily tolled road. In the long term, it is the love of the players and the supporters for their club that transcends everything else, except winning. It is up to Leinster and Munster to show us money cannot buy you everything.