Just as India is the driving force in world cricket, the club structure in France is becoming an increasingly important factor in world rugby. Although it is to be hoped that rugby will never see the levels of subservience that have emerged in elite cricket, the game of bat and ball is a salutary lesson in the insidious effects of money on sport (assuming football does not provide evidence enough). In essence, India’s ridiculous control over nearly all aspects of cricket stems from the revenue generated by its Twenty20 season. It is far from fanciful to suppose that the money in the French game could soon have the same distorting effect.
The procession of foreign players plying their trade in the Top 14 is the first symptom of growing French influence. Just as every cricket-playing nation is now forced to arrange its fixtures around the Indian Premier League to allow its players to cash in, thus the RFU and WRFU are increasingly compelled to compromise their selection policies to cater for French recruits (something that Southern Hemisphere sides have been doing for years, as players in their prime left to seek a “new [richer] challenge”).
Although the RFU have taken particularly strong action to pre-empt the emigration of England players, their 201o statement against the selection of those based abroad was destined to be ineffective as soon as it included the “exceptional circumstances” get-out clause. Ultimately, it is clear that Stuart Lancaster will select whomever he wants if they’re the right player, as Steffon Armitage will likely demonstrate on the summer tour to South Africa. For the Welsh regions, the battle to keep homegrown talents has been lost almost before it has begun, with Gethin Jenkins and Luke Charteris set to join Mike Phillips, Lee Byrne and James Hook across the Channel, and more expected to follow. It remains unclear how the recently-announced salary cap will stem this exodus of capped players.
National selection is not the only area in which the influence of the French leagues is felt. European club rugby is starting to be dominated by French clubs and, whilst a French side will not lift the Heineken Cup this year, they provided two of its quarter-finalists and all the semi-finalists for the second tier Amlin Cup. Recent winners have not been exclusively French (far from it, in fact) but Gallic sides have been at the business end of European competition far more than would be expected on a level playing field, and it is only powerhouses such as Leinster that have prevented the cup crossing the Channel more often.
The concentration of resources and talent in France does not have to be a malign influence on the game, of course. If properly managed, a high-quality, well-funded club competition brings good publicity for the game and helps players to improve when they’re away from the international stage. The crucial thing is to ensure that the money and success of French sides is not given undue weight in decisions about governance, scheduling and availability. India’s ability to control everything from fixture lists to technology should be the ultimate warning to the game’s administrators.
It is on the subject of publicity and the French, however, that this post is really focused. This weekend saw the very best of European competition – a fantastic drop-goal at the death from Jonny Wilkinson to overcome Stade Français; a sense of what might have been as Edinburgh’s handling errors blew their chances of a Heineken Cup Final; and incredible last-ditch defence from Leinster as they squeezed past Clermont in Bordeaux. Amongst such a cracking series of games, however, one note was especially sour.
The game was 21 minutes old at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, and Clermont had just equalised via a penalty. As they poured forward again, Leinster captain Leo Cullen was sufficiently annoyed with prop Lionel Faure to give him a slap, possibly because the front-rower was preventing him from competing in a ruck. At this point, the grizzled Premiership winner processed what had happened (a fairly appreciable delay) and then dove to the floor, theatrically clutching his unmarked face.
Thankfully, Wayne Barnes dealt with the matter sensibly, speaking to Cullen but awarding no penalty. That should not detract from the fact that, were it not for eagle-eyed officiating, Lionel Faure could have ruined a European classic through a blatant act of cheating, either by having Cullen carded, or by “winning” a kickable penalty, or both.
Diving is fairly rare in rugby, partly because the physicality of the game leads to enough real injuries as it is. There have been signs that gamesmanship is creeping into the sport for some time, however, particularly when backs chase kicks and then seek the floor at the slightest contact from a defensive runner. Whilst it remains an uncommon occurrence in the game as a whole, however, it is increasingly prevalent in French rugby.
Faure’s behaviour fitted perfectly with that of Morgan Parra, who later knelt in a classic footballer’s pose, appealing to the referee, after a perfectly legitimate tackle as he kicked ahead. The incredibly talented half-back also has previous after his repeated simulations against Leicester in the group stages. High and dangerous tackles should never be enjoyed, but it was difficult not to feel a certain satisfaction when George Chuter floored him later in that game, after a running battle in which Parra acted like a spoilt child. Needless to say, Parra received treatment after Chuter’s hit until a yellow card was given, and then got up to convert the penalty and complete the game.
These are not isolated incidents – watch a game of Top 14 rugby and see how often someone tries to influence the referee by pretending to be taken out or pretending to be badly hurt. Once time-wasting is taken into account (Imanol Harinordoquy, I’m looking at you, Leicester vs Biarritz, 2005), along with the militantly partisan crowds which these actions manipulate, it is only a matter of time before someone’s cheating swings an important game one way or the other.
My feelings towards players who feign injury for tactical reasons are difficult to express politely. It’s absolutely pathetic. It’s sly, deceitful cheating, conducted with calculated dishonesty and a complete disregard for the spirit of the game. In a sport like rugby, which struggles with its image and its aggressive nature, not to mention the difficulties of elite refereeing, having players simulating their reactions to confrontations actively undermines the game (and far more so than the gamesmanship of the breakdown’s Dark Arts, for example). I fail to see any distinction between Bloodgate and someone play-acting to get an opponent carded.
As in football, of course, nothing will happen as a result of these incidents. Governing bodies will (quite rightly) say that the case is unprovable; Clermont’s coaches and crowd will continue to adore Parra, probably even more so if he can win them a game by underhand means (indeed, part of the problem with his attitude is that he is so outrageously talented); and the French game will continue to disgust foreign fans and neutrals alike, without any attempt to clean itself up. The stakes are too high for decisive action; the rewards for victory are too great to make honest self-criticism worthwhile.
Despite all of that, though, I would dearly, dearly love it if the iRB or the FFR were to cite Faure for “acts contrary to good sportsmanship” (Law 10.4 (m)). This is the law under which eye-gouging is prosecuted, and I cannot think of a better definition of poor sportsmanship than pretending to be hurt to get another player sent off.
More realistically, this sort of behaviour will only be dealt with effectively by self-policing. I would like to see the reaction from Richard Cockerill, Martin Castrogiovanni and Marcos Ayerza if Dan Cole were to feign injury like that – I like to think he wouldn’t do it twice. Better club cultures and education about the values of rugby will serve to eradicate this blemish much more effectively than top-down sanctions. After all, camaraderie and team spirit are probably the most important part of a professional player’s existence.
In the meantime, however, French rugby really should take a hard stance to stamp out this disgraceful aspect of their domestic game before its grip tightens. As the financial power of the Gallic game increases daily, and it continues to be at the forefront of the domestic leagues, it has never been more important or more opportune for this to happen.