THERE HAS BEEN yet another twist in the tale of the Heineken Cup’s potential demise, with Toulon stating their intention to play in the current tournament next season.
This is the first time an individual French club has shown a lack of support for the proposed new Rugby Champions Cup, with the current European champions’ decision to break rank stemming from an unhappiness with the Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR).
The LNR recently announced plans to impose increased restrictions on the number of foreign players in the French clubs’ squads, with a staggered reduction on the number of non-JIFF (joueurs issus des filières de formation) players building towards a targeted figure of 12 in each match-day squad by 2017. Any clubs who don’t reach that target will apparently be punished with a reduction in TV rights and marketing payments from the LNR.
To qualify for the JIFF rules, a player must spend three seasons in a French club’s academy between the ages of 16 and 21. That means the JIFF laws do not exclude non-French born players, and indeed many Top 14 clubs have overcome the ruling simply by signing younger players and nationalizing them earlier. Young Fijians are now being brought over to France at the age of 18 by teams like Toulon and Clermont.
Toulon won last season’s Heineken Cup final in Dublin. ©INPHO/James Crombie.
However, Mourad Boudjellal, the president of Toulon, is angered by what he calls “abject, reactionary and racist” actions on the part of the LNR and now says his club will not support the governing body’s plans to form the Rugby Champions Cup next season.
The comic book magnate told La Provence that his club “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.”
While this is possibly just a high-profile tantrum on Boudjellal’s part, he is very serious in his opposition to the new ruling on non-JIFF players in France. Toulon’s squad is littered with foreign players like Jonny Wilkinson, Bakkies Botha and Matt Giteau. The new regulations would certainly mean Toulon having to re-think a recruitment policy that has focused on experienced, non-French stars up until this point.
For the LNR and, of course, the Premiership clubs, this statement from Boudjellal will be particularly displeasing as it may improve the ERC’s position. There had been an ominous unity to the English and French clubs’ insistence that they would plow ahead with the Rugby Champions Cup until now, but Boudjellal may just have put a spanner in the works.