The latest twist in the tale of the Heineken Cup v Rugby Champions Cap saga has emerged in the form of controversial Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal’s backing of the current tournament. He is the first representative of a French club to break away from the party line of support for the new Rugby Champions Cup championed by all the other English and French clubs, in favour of a continuation of the ERC-backed Heineken Cup.
It is believed that the Toulon president’s comments are a reaction to an unhappiness with the LNR (Ligue Nationale de Rugby, the French equivalent of Premiership Rugby), who recently announced plans to reduce the number of foreigners plying their trade in the Top 14. It will be a staggered reduction, with a target of a limit of 12 foreigners in each squad by 2017. Any club that does not make that target will be punished with a reduction in TV rights and marketing payments.
This would, of course, be a huge blow to Toulon, whose squad is flush with foreign imports such as Matt Giteau, Jonny Wilkinson and Bakkies Botha, so it is perhaps little wonder that Boudjellal is throwing his toys out of the pram. In withering fashion he told La Provence: “[Toulon] will take part in the 2014-15 Heineken Cup, as the ERC does not demand quotas on foreign players, contrary to the Ligue Nationale, who bear their name well.”
However, the new regulations do state that to qualify as homegrown, a player must spend three seasons in a club’s academy between the ages of 16 and 21. This move has seen an increase of young Pacific Islanders joining clubs like Toulon and Clermont at the age of 18 – so non-French born players are not completely excluded, if you can sign them early enough.
It is a huge blow to the LNR and Premiership Rugby, however, who had until now shown impressive solidarity in their public messages and desire to drive change. Boudjellal has never been afraid to speak his mind, and chances are he is just unhappy at not getting his way with the LNR, but it is nonetheless an important moment in the saga, and the English and French clubs will hope it does not set a precedent.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images