This week, Scottish Rugby’s Great White Hope, Glasgow Warriors, traverse the English Channel to take on Heineken Cup champions, and veritable club rugby giants, Toulon. It promises to be an intriguing match-up, with the PRO12 leaders heading into the fixture boosted by five wins from their first five league fixtures.
However, Saturday’s clash at Stade Mayol, regardless of the outcome, serves further to underline the glaring gap in finances and resources between the haves and have-nots of European rugby. Not that any reminder of that gap was necessary, particularly given the current turmoil in which the tournament now finds itself ensnared.
As an example, barring injury, one suspects that lining up in the centres for the Warriors will be young duo Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett – a pairing many Scots hope to see in the navy blue national jersey before long. By contrast, their opposite numbers will most likely take the form of Australian Matt Giteau, with over ninety Wallaby caps to his name, and classy French international Maxime Mermoz.
In the back row, 24-year-old Glasgow openside Chris Fusaro – who remains uncapped – will go up against World Cup-winning Springbok Juan Smith, or the prestigious Steffon Armitage.
The illustrious names among the Toulon squad trip off the tongue. Argentine captain Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and South African speedster Bryan Habana are joined by Italian tighthead Martin Castrogiovanni, and of course, Jonny Wilkinson. To say the champions possess “an embarrassment of riches” is akin to referring to a colonoscopy as slightly invasive.
The Heineken Cup often throws up these apparent mismatches – some argue that’s partly what makes the tournament so special – and offers a chance for the up-and-coming to pit themselves against the very best. Though Glasgow have every right to fancy their chances of upsetting the odds at Stade Mayol, there is precious little comparison to be had between the respective squads.
Rumours that Clermont were to sign All Black centre Ma’a Nonu did the cyberspace rounds several weeks ago. Had that move ever come to fruition, it would have seen the Top14 side boast a backline that included Wesley Fofana, Julien Malzieu, Napoleoni Nalaga, Sitiveni Sivivatu, and Aurelien Rougerie among others. Even clubs with the financial clout of Northampton Saints, Leinster or Leicester Tigers simply cannot match such a plethora of high-profile stars.
At present, the salary cap for French clubs sits at £8.6m, having been raised by the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) in April this year. A brief glance at the list of the Top 14’s most highly-paid players confirms the huge sums of money involved. Little wonder, then, that the Pro12 loses many of its stars to France, a new challenge, and a payday to reward the typically short career of the pro athlete.
In England, there was uproar this week as Mark Cueto went public with his allegations that it was “blatantly obvious” certain teams were dodging the Premiership’s own salary cap, which currently stands at £4.26m. While many clubs have oft claimed that their rivals were finding ways round the payroll ceiling, such assertions are rarely made by a player – particularly one with the experience of the league boasted by Cueto.
Premiership Rugby (PRL) tempered these fears, announcing this week that “a new, more transparent monitoring and investigation system” is to be introduced, giving the body added power to appoint “independent experts” to sift through the finances of a club suspected of breaching the cap. The sanctions, too, are likely to be more severe to make an example of those who contravene the monetary rulings, and allay the worries of the public. Though the hotline set up by PRL for so-called whistle-blowers to contact the body with their concerns and claims over financial fair play may be a tad unwise, even a belated escalation of the policing of the cap is laudable.
The cap itself is a hugely controversial subject among those involved with the English domestic game. Some argue that it limits those in the upper reaches of the Premiership from matching the financial heights scaled by their cross-channel counterparts. Others claim that it is necessary to prevent those same clubs from breaking away from their less illustrious league rivals.
Of course, the other side of the salary cap coin is that, with the more high-profile names drawn from their respective domestic clubs to the movers and shakers of the Top 14, opportunities become available for young, home-grown talent to make names for themselves. Welsh regions in particular, having lost so many big-name players to France, now have a chance to further develop their emerging youth players. Cardiff Blues, despite managing to cling on to Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert, can still name the fledgling trio of Rhys Patchell, Cory Allen and Harry Robinson among their starting backline.
With such heavy doubt cast over the future of cross-border European rugby, and the Heineken Cup, there surely is serious risk that the chasm between the Toulons and Glasgow Warriors of this world could grow yet wider. While many are urging the respective governing bodies to “sort it out”, few have suggested a pertinent solution amid the storm of power, money and deals that dominate the professional game. Now that Heineken Cup cash is no longer secure for many who depend upon it, the steady tide of cross-channel player movement could yet become a raging torrent – following the same path the Warriors squad navigate this weekend.
By Jamie Lyall – Follow Jamie on Twitter @JLyall93