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Ambitious French rugby clubs seem immune to crisis

By Reuters Staff
February 17, 2009

Brive-bound Riki Flutey (R)

Gone are the days when top French rugby players such as Philippe Sella, Thomas Castaignede and Raphael Ibanez were crossing the Channel to improve their skills and make their fortunes, writes Jean-Paul Couret.

French clubs, seemingly immune to the global economic crisis, have reversed the tide and are now threatening to plunder the English Premiership.

“It’s true that the transfers of English players to France are booming and it’s not a surprise because we are going through a financial crisis and rugby is now a professional sport,” Toulouse manager Guy Noves told Reuters on Tuesday.

“For several years, English players earned a lot of money at home but they are discovering it’s now in their interest to come and play in France because of the weakness of the pound and because English clubs like Sale and Wasps have now to reduce their costs,” he added.

According to French media reports, Toulouse have a budget of around 20 millions euros (17.6 million pounds), dwarfing that of the leading English clubs, who are further hampered by the country’s salary cap.

France flyhalf Frederic Michalak was earning 600,000 euros a year before he left Toulouse for a sabbatical in South Africa after the 2007 World Cup, while young England flyhalf Danny Cipriani reportedly earns around 250,000 pounds from Wasps.

Toulouse have always been renowned for their solid management but the wealth of some French clubs is also linked to the arrival of a new generation of chairmen ready to invest huge amounts of money.

GROUND SWELL

Toulon’s Mourad Boudjellad, who made a fortune publishing comic books, recruited New Zealand internationals Tana Umaga and Jerry Collins.

Jacky Lorenzetti, founder of property group Foncia, brought former All Blacks flyhalf Andrew Mehrtens to Racing Metro and, according to French sports daily L’Equipe, has offered more than one million euros a year to recruit France forward Sebastien Chabal from Sale.

With the World Cup only two years away, French clubs discovered that it was difficult to attract New Zealand or South Africa internationals and turned instead to England.

They fired a first salvo on Tuesday when it was announced that a trio of Wasps England internationals — Riki Flutey, Tom Palmer and James Haskell — were joining Brive and Stade Francais.

According to speculation at the French team’s training camp, this trickle could fast become a flood.

Brive have contacted Newcastle centre Jamie Noon, Bristol scrumhalf Shaun Perry and Leicester fullback Geordan Murphy.

Clermont have signed Scotland forward Jason White and second division leaders Racing Metro have their sights on Gloucester back Iain Balshaw.

In addition, several French players now with English clubs are set to return to France.

Chabal is about to leave Sale who have also lost hooker Sebastien Bruno and coach Philippe Saint-Andre. Hooker Benjamin Kayser and scrumhalf Julien Dupuy are set to leave Leicester and join Stade Francais.

“You just have to remember that they were paid in pounds but were investing in euros in France and they lost nearly a third of their revenue,” a source close to the increasingly buoyant French transfer market said.

PHOTO: Wales’ Tom Shanklin tackles England’s Riki Flutey during their Six Nations match in Cardiff, Feb.14. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

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