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Paul Dearlove's exclusive weekly column: Are 'les etrangers' good for French rugby?

05 February 2009

Pau captain Paul Dearlove in action
Un etranger in a strange land:
Pau captain Paul Dearlove

In the latest of his exclusive weekly columns for FRC, Pau captain Paul Dearlove asks the tricky question of whether foreign players - of which, of course, he is one - are good for French rugby and the country's continued development of its future stars.

Foreign players in France are apparently treading a fine line between being a good thing and too much of a good thing. Bernard Laporte (former coach of Les Bleus and now minister for sport) has publicly called for a limiting of the number of foreign players in the French Championships. So are there too many non French players plying their trade in France?

Firstly, a little bit of background.

The main reason there are so many South Africans and Pacific Islanders playing in France, and Europe in general, is the Cotonou Agreement. You may have heard of the Kolpak agreement which is the application of Cotonou to professional sport.

Cotonou is an international trade agreement designed to reduce poverty and aid sustainable development. It allows nationals of countries considered to be ?developing? (this includes South Africa and the Pacific Islands) freedom to work in the European Union.

So far so... confusing?

When trying to ?aid development? I?m not sure the EU had professional sports in mind but hey, a loophole is a loophole.

Racing Metro's former All Black fly-half Andrew Mehrtens is probably the highest profile example of a rugby player using his South African passport to avoid being a foreign player (as he would be if he used his Kiwi passport), but he is by no means alone. In the interest of full disclosure ? I consider myself an Australian but play in France on my South African passport.

Having established that, here's another small detour as we work back towards the original question...

The most hyped game of the French season so far took place on the weekend when Stade Francais took on Perpignan in Paris - the battle of Argentina's Juan Martin Hernandez and New Zealand's Dan Carter. Around 80,000 people filled Stade de France and there was talk of little else that weekend. It is this kind of interest and attention that rugby has craved. Certain players are now internationally recognised and they help bring an extra thousand or even ten thousand through the turnstiles. Having high profile players, even if they are foreigners, is clearly a savvy business decision, and money coming into the game (via sponsors and spectators) has to be good for the sport.

The other side of the argument says that the local talent doesn?t develop if it can?t get a game, and there is some truth to this.

The influx of high profile players has left some local players warming the bench, and the fact that Toulouse scrum-half Jean-Baptiste Elissalde has not made the French 22 for the weekend has clearly not been helped by him having to play second fiddle at club level to former All Black Byron Kelleher. While this isn?t ideal for Elissalde, the more pertinent problem is when teams fill their teams with journeymen because they think it is in the best way to fulfill their ambitions.

Teams like Aurillac in the Pro D2 regularly take the field with less than 20% of the team speaking French as their native language. On the other hand, though, last season they finished top of the Federale 1 and were promoted, and as recently as three weeks ago were sitting 2nd in the Pro D2.

Clearly some middle ground needs to be found and, for once, I haven?t got an answer and it isn?t really in my interests to find one.

In fact, I do have an answer but I?m keeping it a secret until I retire. Until then, like a true Frenchman, I demand we keep the status quo.

Previous columns:

28.01.09: Do the French deserve their reputation for foul play? - Part II
Do the French deserve their reputation for foul play? - Part I
08.01.09: Is professional rugby going to be credit crunched?
18.12.08: When two tribes go to war - The local derby
The game they play in heaven, but who is playing God?
The Unknown Soldier - Life as a journeyman professional in France's ProD2

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