Rugby: The fallback position

By John Daniell

Strong, fast and utterly unpredictable, Serge Blanco is remembered as the epitome of French flair. One of rugby's great running fullbacks, a player of almost insolent grace with the ball in hand who would happily counterattack from anywhere, he played 93 tests for les Bleus between 1980 and 1991, scoring 38 tries. A canny businessman off the field, he went on to set up a spa in his home town of Biarritz and develop his own clothing label.

Since 1998, he has presided over the Ligue National de Rugby (LNR), the organisation that runs the richest club rugby competition in the world. (The top 14 teams have a collective budget of $300 million for 2007-08, growing to $450 million when the 16 team second division is added. Bear in mind this is just the clubs - the French Federation which runs the national side has its own chunky budget.)

The Blanco silhouette is a little less streamlined these days - good dinners are an occupational hazard for French rugby officials - but he still has vision, passion and a sidestep. For example, he contends that the responsibility for the second-string international sides that have been sent south in the past lies with the unions that wanted longer tours to fill their own coffers. In any case, from next year, he promises that the French club championship will avoid any clash with the June window when the European nations travel south.

It's the least they can do. One way or another, French rugby hasn't been doing New Zealand any favours lately. Perhaps French clubs can't be held directly responsible for the Cardiff debacle but they do attract some of New Zealand's best talent. Blanco and co are probably not high on the NZRU Christmas card list.

That may be about to change. The LNR is looking to put in place measures that would drastically reduce the number of foreigners who can play in the French competition. Blanco says he would want the same rule applied across Europe. And, he says, it could happen very quickly. It's a move that would surely be welcomed by New Zealand rugby and the Tri Nations.

The English clubs recently came up with an agreement that looked to limit the number of foreign players and encourage home-grown talent but Blanco feels it did not go far enough: "It's not a good agreement. The English are looking at limiting foreign player numbers to their current levels. I can't be satisfied with that - we have to reduce them."

About 35 per cent of French-based professionals are from overseas, roughly the same figure as in England. Blanco won't yet name a target figure but it is clear he is looking at a serious decrease: five, 10 or 15 per cent, perhaps as many as 20 per cent, which would be about six players per club.

The numbers of foreigners plying their trade in France is an increasingly controversial issue. Last week, Castres, home to Kees Meeuws, Carl Hoeft and Cameron McIntyre, sent out a starting 15 that had only two French players. Even in the supposedly amateur third division, one team has brought in seven Fijians.

European employment law makes the foreigner question a difficult one for rugby officials. Any attempt to impose a quota on the number of players from overseas is considered a restraint of trade but Blanco believes they have now structured a sufficiently solid case.

"We have been to Matignon [the French Prime Minister's office] and seen various politicians. Now we need to take it to the national Olympic committee [who oversee sporting regulations in France]. Once they have passed it, things can move fast."

But he warns the whole of Europe will need to follow France's lead: "We are not going to persecute ourselves if others won't follow."

At the same time, he would like to see the provincial championships in the Southern Hemisphere more open to foreign players. It's one of a number of interesting suggestions he has for New Zealand.

Blanco insists he is a fan of New Zealand rugby. "Even if I was happy for the French team in Cardiff, like everyone who loves rugby, I was sad when the All Blacks lost."

He also wants to see the financial imbalance between north and south redressed. "It's not a money-making competition. We need balance."

Blanco believes the financial success of the French championship and European Cup can be emulated in the Southern Hemisphere by a return to tradition.

"Today, Europe is the future, not just in financial terms, but from a sporting point of view. The Super 14 is not a competition that people find satisfying because it has been cut off from its culture. Sport is culture: people need to feel emotionally engaged when Biarritz play Toulouse, or Leicester, they are defending their town, their history, their culture. That is the strength of sport. In the Super 14, you have pre-fabricated teams with players who are shuffled around from one to another, there is no risk involved, no danger of relegation. Even if the game itself can be more spectacular, rugby should not be simply about a spectacle, it is about winning and losing. A team must take the field to win.

"And," he adds with a grin, "I believe when the New Zealand Rugby Union understand there are better ways of preparing players than in the current format of the Super 14, they will be world champions."

Blanco says the NPC is the true heart of New Zealand rugby and that it should be structured as a qualifying competition for the Super 14.

"By opening its provincial teams to foreign players, we could increase the interest in the competitions to audiences outside the country and open up new sources of revenue. Even if there is less money on offer than there might be here, French players will still go to New Zealand for the experience, provided they feel they are participating in an interesting competition."

But will inviting foreigners to play in our domestic game not detract from the sense of history and culture? Pride in the jersey is a bit hollow coming from someone who doesn't even speak the language.

"Players have to marry the cause of the club they play for - the jersey that they feel next to their skin will mean something then. We have foreigners playing at Biarritz and we win with them and I don't have a problem with that."

Blanco holds that the need for high stakes to give meaning to any competition is essential and he is excited by the prospect of the World Series idea mooted by the IRB. The top 10 nations would split into two pools playing each other during the international windows, ending with a final between the top team from each pool.

"These inter-hemisphere tests will no longer simply be friendly games, which is good. But there has to be the possibility of relegation as well, so that the top 10 is open. There should be an equivalent competition for the second tier. One of rugby's problems is that we tend to think only of the major nations. The French club competition works because we have a strong second division as well. We need to respect what everyone can do and give everyone an opportunity. Three or four of the larger nations aren't interested in the smaller ones. But we need to keep opening up the game."

Opening up the game. It sounds a good plan and one you might expect from the fullback who wants to run. The reality may be a little different. The fatties may decide to stick the ball up their jumper. The politics of rugby are like the game itself - one man can't do much on his own but he can have a bloody good crack.

* John Daniell is a former professional player who now works as a journalist in France. He is the author of Inside French Rugby: Confessions of a Kiwi Mercenary.

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