We attended last year’s European rugby final in the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, where the match against the English club Saracens was an entirely one-sided triumph for the French team Toulon, and we attended the year before in Dublin, where Toulon beat ASM Clermont Auvergne by a single point, and we might have gone to Twickenham for this year’s final, had the dates of the competition not been changed. Having seen them win twice, there was a feeling of inevitability about the result of yesterday’s match, a feeling that there was always one team that would win, and it was so, Toulon won their third European title in a row, and no-one could have said they were really surprised. “They simply bullied their way to victory”, commented a friend. It would have been hard to deny that the sheer brute strength of the Toulon players was an important factor; there was not much by way of subtlety. Equally, it would have been hard to deny that these were the two best teams in Europe and that if ASM could not beat Toulon in the final, no-one could.
If the reality on the field is undeniable, the reality off the field is spelt out in very stark terms: the French clubs have the sort of budgets of which Irish teams might only dream. The provisional figures published by the Ligue National de Rugby showed the clubs in the Top 14, the first division of French rugby, had an average budget of €21.16 million for the 2014-15 season. It is an average that might be an understatement of the full levels of expenditure. Clubs are subject to a cap of €10 million per season for salaries, but some have been creative in ensuring players have the opportunity of augmenting their earnings through activities such as product endorsements, Toulon are said to be particularly resourceful at finding such openings for their star players.
When one compares the financial resources available to the French clubs with the spending power of the Irish Provinces, the gulf is apparent. Prior to the domination of European rugby by Toulon, Leinster had been European champions for three seasons out of four, they must have survived on a shoestring. The Irish Rugby Football Union stated its “professional game” costs for 2013-14 were €31.8 million; in that same season, the Stade Toulousain budget was €34.97 million. In other words, the budget for running the Irish international team, plus Leinster, Munster, Ulster and Connacht professional teams, was less than that for Toulouse.
Economics tends to be the final arbiter in most matters. The sheer spending power of French clubs means that in a professional era they will increasingly have pick and choice of players. Rugby seems likely to go the way of soccer and become a question of who has the deepest pocket.
The European cup final next season is on 14th May 2016. It is difficult to imagine that Toulon will bot be playing.