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French connections: the forces driving English rugby’s Top 14 exodus
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French connections: the forces driving English rugby’s Top 14 exodus

Another week, another England international confirming a move to the Top 14. Kyle Sinckler will join Lewis Ludlam in swapping the Premiership for Toulon, taking the number of players from England’s World Cup squad who will be turning out in France next season to nine. Should Billy Vunipola complete a move to Montpellier it will be double figures and if brother Mako joins him then France’s top two divisions will be just a scrum-half shy of a full XV who represented England at either the 2019 or the 2023 World Cup. By anyone’s standards it is an unprecedented direction of travel.

It is not as if this raft of players are trailblazers – Rob Andrew’s stint at Toulouse in the early 90s shows that Englishmen have been making the move across the Channel since even before the advent of professionalism – but it is the sheer numbers as well as their profile. The Rugby Football Union’s decision to prevent anyone playing outside England pulling on the red rose jersey in 2012 was made to ensure that on the back of Jonny Wilkinson’s success story at Toulon there was not a flood of players who followed but it seems powerless to stop the nouvelle vague.

While it is true to say that a lot of those making the move are the wrong side of 30, players whose international careers were coming to a natural end and who would probably not be offered “enhanced” contracts by the RFU next season, there are too many exceptions to consider that a rule. Owen Farrell is the highest profile departure but Henry Arundell, Joe Marchant and Jack Willis are all players with their best years ahead of them. Those will sting most for the RFU.

The former England centre Jamie Noon finished his career with stints at Brive and then Tulle and since then has been employed as an agent in France. As a result he is better placed than most to assess the growing number following in his footsteps and he finds it striking how it is the players themselves, rather than the French clubs, who are engineering the moves.

“The French clubs are open to getting quality players but it seems that there is more interest from the UK to get to France,” Noon tells the Guardian. “Sometimes when a player has been released, they think: ‘I’ll just go to France and make more money.’ It doesn’t work like that. This year more than ever there has been some genuine quality players who are looking to come to France. It’s people who aren’t even necessarily out of contract, Owen has cut his contract to move so there’s a real desire there to do something different.”

Looking for reasons behind the exodus and some are obvious. The World Cup cycle is still relatively new and someone like Arundell may yet return to England in time to make the squad for the 2027 tournament. The financial benefits are clear, too, and perhaps more pertinently the security offered with the demises of London Irish, Wasps and Worcester still reverberating. The fact that Premiership clubs are now allowed just one marquee player is also significant as well as an appreciation that careers are short.

Owen Farrell in action for SaracensView image in fullscreen

“Japan is the wealthiest league in the world so players will make the most money over there but in terms of transition and adaptation, France is that little bit easier,” adds Noon. “The money is good, there are benefits associated with that and the league is competitive. The French leagues have got a financial police in place, they have to account for their money at the start of the season, they have to be able to prove they’ve got all this money coming in to be able to offer the players these contracts. So it’s definitely safer.

“And the big thing about French contract offers is that they get accommodation included. There are also tax breaks, so you pay less tax or there are tax benefits if you’re married, if you have children. You can get something called impatriation, which helps with your tax allowance as well – that’s pretty interesting, especially compared to the rates in the UK.”

To look at things purely in cold, hard, economic terms is too simplistic, however. “It’s also a beautiful place to be, the whole French lifestyle, the rugby is very competitive and to be able to test yourself at that level is definitely very appealing to someone who has still got that desire to be competitive and really push the boundaries,” says Noon.

“This year more than ever players are a little bit more open to exploring and also not naive to think they’re going to be playing this level of rugby forever and if they can cash in, maybe they cash in earlier. Or they just want to do something different. I can speak from experience, changing scenery is refreshing.”

To pose the question another way, why are the French clubs so happy to welcome ageing Englishmen into a league that is the most prosperous in Europe? The answer may lie thousands of miles away because it requires only a cursory glance at the squad lists to see how many leading All Blacks and Springboks – the kind of players who would once have headed to France – are instead making for Japan. That in turn makes English players a more attractive proposition for the Top 14.

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Jack Willis in action for ToulouseView image in fullscreen

“The French clubs like a name, they like a CV with lots on there,” says Noon. “That’s the presidents as well – they want to offer something to their supporters. It’s definitely something that they’re conscious of. They also know that in terms of being able to get the best players to France, Japan at the moment seems to be winning that battle.

“So the fact that England is just a stone’s throw away, it works pretty well. It’s not like instead of going to get a Kiwi or a South African, they’re going to the basement bucket. These guys are still world class and still operating at a similar level.”

To date there has been little pushback from within France, no complaints about an English invasion though it was telling to hear the LNR president Rene Bouscatel say back in December that “it’s good news for the attractivity of our leagues, but it’s not necessarily good news for rugby long term in general”. There is also a salary cap in France as well as rules which encourage clubs to select homegrown players. Accordingly, Noon strongly advises against anyone planning to head to France simply to line their pockets in the twilight of their career.

“I say this to a lot of players who we move over here, the French approach to rugby and culture and philosophy is different to the UK,” he adds. “You do have to come open minded, to come with a desire to learn the way they do it and to buy into it. Sometimes it’s very different, sometimes it feels a bit wacky but if you go with it then they appreciate it and they also respect you a little bit more. Instead of coming and trying to change things or complain, if you knuckle down and work hard on the language which will help in general day-to-day life as well as within the team, they’ll love you for it.”

Source: theguardian.com