Elections, Boudjellal, unpredictability and discontent

Out-of-work yet in-demand Fabien Galthie offered an interesting aside in a recent conversation. “The rugby is better in the Aviva Premiership than the Top 14,” he proffered.

A bold statement that, particularly from a man you might expect to extol the virtues of French rugby at every opportunity. Yet it’s a view that appears to have traction elsewhere in France.

Last Friday’s Midi Olympique, the French rugby newspaper, carried an advertisement filling the bottom third of its front page urging readers to make a date this weekend with SFR SPORT2 and “Un Dimanche de Rugby”. It wasn’t punting Clermont Auvergne against Toulouse but rather “Le Choc Anglais …Saracens vs. Wasps”.

Suffice to say club rugby on this side of La Manche is commanding greater respect in France these days. For the first time in almost a decade the Premiership can boast to be the home of the European champions while Louis Picamoles’ move this season to Northampton and Christopher Tolofua’s impending switch to the Champions Cup winners Saracens shows signs another trend is being reversed.

But let’s not get carried away and believe the broad and heavy footprint of the Top 14 and its guardian the Ligue Nationale de Rugby are under threat in their own land. The point is, though, that not everyone in France is happy with its own domestic product.

Those having a moan include Mourad Boudjellal who stood but failed to topple the incumbent Paul Goze in last week’s elections for the LNR presidency. Not for the first time, the comic book millionaire is threatening to sell the club and walk away from the sport.

“If there is to be shock elimination in the pools I fancy it will Racing.”

Martin Gillingham makes his Champions Cup predictions

In truth, the Toulon owner was resigned to defeat even before his failure to secure a place on the league’s steering committee left Goze to be re-elected unopposed. Yet despite having unanimous support within the coterie of club presidents, not everyone who holds influence in French rugby is comfortable with what even Goze confessed to have been his “Soviet-style” acclamation.

Goze’s first term in office has seen the French league grow in just about every way. His “strategic plan” released during the summer drew on statistics from the last decade. Television revenue? Up; Sponsorship? Up? Public awareness of rugby? Up. Match attendances? Up? TV viewing figures? Up. Performances of French clubs in Europe? Up.

Yet no sooner had the season got into its stride than more contemporary and, therefore, pertinent numbers were revealing themselves. The most alarming of these involve the decline in crowd attendances.

The most striking feature of televised matches hosted by either Montpellier or Toulouse has been of the stands and the swathes of unoccupied tip-up seats. Le Clasico, as the clashes involving Toulouse and Stade Francais are dubbed, attracted just 12,900 fans last month while Jake White’s Montpellier may well have won a European title in May but in recent weeks have twice failed to get 10,000 through the turnstiles for home games.

Attendances for both Parisian teams have been a sore point for some time but things are getting worse at the new Stade Jean Bouin where average gates have dropped from 13,000 two seasons ago to 9,500. Saturday’s Paris derby between the two most recent holders of the Bouclier de Brennus enticed just 11,465 to Colombes.

There are, of course, exceptions with Bordeaux-Begles continuing to be the best supported club in both France and Europe. Clubs like Toulon (Marseille’s Velodrome) and the London clubs (Twickenham / Wembley) have their average gates massaged by big stadium relocations but Bordeaux’s numbers are consistent with an average home gate of 25,000.

Racing 92 celebrate winning the Top 14 (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

There is also rarely a vacant seat to be seen on matchdays at Clermont Auvergne’s Stade Marcel Michelin or at the home of the league’s rising stars La Rochelle where the a guichet fermes (sold out) signs have been outside their 15,000-capacity Stade Marcel Deflandre all season.

La Rochelle are second in the Top 14 having been passed on Sunday by Clermont who despite having just 13 players on the pitch at one point and with a set piece sent shockingly and frequently into a fast back-peddling reverse by a powerful Toulouse front five beat their Rouge et Noir rivals 29-25.

The difference between the sides was the place-kicking of Morgan Parra who was on target with all seven attempts on Sunday and has missed just two of 35 kicks at goal all season. He should be Guy Noves’s first name on the team sheet for France’s next Test on November 12 against Samoa.

France have seven representatives in this season’s Champions Cup though it would be wise to write off the prospects of two of them now. Castres will throw everything at whoever rocks up to the Stade Pierre Antoine but all too frequently field weakened sides on their travels. Even with the inspirational Christophe Urios now in charge you can expect them to be targeting the Top 14 as the priority. That said, Northampton are disadvantaged by a fixture rota which sees them travelling to Castres in round two.

Like last year, Bordeaux-Begles have been drawn in the same pool as Clermont and Exeter. Raphael Ibanez’s team have the capacity to spring a surprise and will be very difficult to beat at home. But don’t expect them to progress. Clermont surely will.

Toulon face defending champions Saracens but with Sale and Scarlets making up the pool the three-time former winners are expected to make it into the quarter-finals.

Toulouse travel to Connacht this weekend with Wasps heading to the Ville Rose in round two. Ugo Mola will have been encouraged by his pack’s performance against Clermont. At the heart of it was Census Johnston who is no longer the only capable tight head in the squad and with him now getting sufficient rest has rediscovered his zest. If Toulouse can get a win in Galway then I reckon they’ll make the final eight.

That leaves Racing 92 and Montpellier. Racing are believed to be placing special emphasis on Europe this season. But they’ll have to sharpen their act after some insipid performances this season. They were outplayed by Brive a fortnight ago and could, and perhaps should have, lost the Paris derby on Saturday. On the request of coach Laurent Travers, owner Jacky Lorenzetti has drafted in Patricio Noriega at short notice to knock a misfiring scrum into shape. If there is to be shock elimination in the pools I fancy it will Racing.

Montpellier is a club in some disarray off the pitch with Jake White having been told he won’t be welcome back next season. Even with an English speaker Vern Cotter lurking in the wings it does make you wonder how the foot soldiers in the 2007 World Cup winner’s Languedoc Boks feel about the club and their futures at it.

My predictions? Clermont Auvergne and Montpellier (pool winners) and Toulon and Toulouse (runners-up) to go through to the quarter-finals.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/17778058/elections-boudjellal-discontent-how-top-14-sides-do-champions-cup
Elections, Boudjellal, unpredictability and discontent
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