11 August 2008
It’s been a frantic off-season of transfer activity in France with the cash-happy Top14 clubs busier than a rum-soaked stag on a night out in Ibiza.
There’s been the usual plethora of ageing internationals heading down to the ‘Le Sud’ for a sunshine swansong in the land of good living, but the arrival of southern hemisphere giants like Dan Carter, Jerry Collins, Mark Gasnier and of course the controversial Sonny ‘Bill’ Williams has stirred up some something of a hornets nest down under. Here in France it’s produced nothing more than the archetypal Gallic shrug – ‘your loss is our gain’ type of thing – with the likely knock-on effect of increased crowds, revenue, television interest and, guess what, even more power in next year’s transfer market.
The long-term impact of such high-profile signings is what worries the Australians and Kiwis most, with the latter already relaxing their stringent qualification rules to allow Carter to fill his pockets at Perpignan and yet remain an All Black. For Australia the worry is the death of NRL, the self-proclaimed home of rugby league currently shaken to its core by the desertion of Williams to Toulon with four years still to run on his contract.
The recriminations of that move are likely to run for some time yet with the battle now moving into the Australian courts, but what it illustrates beyond doubt – whatever the legal outcome – is the pulling power of the Euro, and the growing dominance of Union over League.
With Stade Francais signing up Mark Gasnier – another of the Aussies’ would-be poster boys for the forthcoming Rugby League World Cup – it seems the flow to Union is now something more than a trickle, and there’s little doubt that State of Origin stars such as Israel Folau and Greg Inglis will also be targeted.
As NRL agent Steve Gillis admitted: “I think that, when it comes to the very best players, it [the top14] will turn out to be a bigger threat than the English Super League”.
For the time being, though, it is Carter and Williams who will share the spotlight, with the latter taking centre stage at first until the Kiwis’ mercurial fly-half arrives following the All Blacks’ winter European internationals.
Many expected Carter to team up with former All Black Tana Umaga at Toulon, but the world’s leading union star decided the lure of Heineken Cup action was too great and opted for Perpignan instead.
Toulon, meanwhile, will have to make do with the arrival of Williams – who has declared his ambition of playing for the All Blacks – and Umaga’s cousin Collins, together with feisty Aussie scrumhalf Matt Henjak and yet another league recruit in the shape of Luke Rooney.
Up front they have opted for South African granite, in the shape locks Ross Skeate and Francois van der Merwe, together with hooker Tiaan Liebenberg and loose forward Joe Van Niekerk.
The likes of Andrew Merhtens and Victor Matfield may have departed but Toulon’s voracious recruitment policy means the ProD2 champions could be a force to be reckoned with in their first season back at the top table, with a mouth-watering opening home game against Clermont on August 26th to kick-start their campaign.
Current champions Toulouse have opted for quality over quantity – and with their squad who wouldn’t? - with fly-halves David Skrela and Frédéric Michalak returning to ‘La Ville Rose’ from Stade Francais and Durban Sharks respectively. The challenge for Guy Novès this year will be to go one better than 2007-8 and take the famed double of the Bouclier de Brennus and the Heineken Cup.
Former All Black scrum-half Byron Kelleher has signed on until 2011 now and will be relishing the challenge of pitting himself Montpellier’s latest Kiwi recruit Justin Marshall, himself an ex-All Black scrum half signed from the Ospreys, where he will be joined by Leicester and England centre Ollie Smith.
Another England international heading south is flanker Magnus Lund, now part of Biarritz’ enlarged squad as they seek to improve on last year’s disappointing sixth position. Fly-half Valentin Courrent has also joined from Toulouse, with Canterbury prop Campbell Johnstone and French international Fabien Barcella adding quality in the forwards.
Former Stade Francais flanker Remy Martin has thrown in his lot with Bayonne, together with Reds prop Rodney ‘Rodzilla’ Blake, while Stade’s new coach Australian Ewen Mckenzie has recruited Gasnier, Argentines Juan Manuel Leguizamon and Ignacio Mieres, together with Springbok scrumhalf Falie Oelschig.
Brive have been the busiest of the Top14 clubs with England and Leicester fly-half Andy Goode heading an incoming list that includes fellow Brits Damien Browne, Christian Short, Liam Davies and Alix Popham. French lock Arnaud Mela has also signed, with Argentines Pablo Henn and Horacio Agulla among more than 15 new players on board.
Other notable signings have included Reds prop Ben Coutts (to Mont-de-Marsan), Chiefs prop Simms Davidson (to Clermont), Wellington Hurricanes wing Shannon Paku (to Montauban) and Italian fullback David Bortolussi (moving from Montpellier to Dax).
Some will no doubt settle faster than others, but the flow of talent, brute force and charisma looks set to ensure that this year’s Top14 continues its drive to the pre-eminent club competition in Europe, and perhaps in the ling-term, the world.