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FEATURE Why European rugby is in danger of death-by-monopoly

Why European rugby is in danger of death-by-monopoly
2 months ago

It was only four years ago the spectre of Covid-19 enveloped the globe. Its effects are still very much with us. The pandemic also drew the veil of civility aside in the sporting world, exposing the skull beneath the skin.

Near the epicentre of the crisis in April 2021, football’s richest European clubs – including six from the Premier League [Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, the two Manchester giants and Tottenham Hotspur], and three apiece from Spain [Real and Atletico Madrid and Barcelona] and Italy [the two Milan clubs plus Juventus] – announced a breakaway from existing governance to form their very own ‘Super League’.

The big balloon of rationalisations inflated by, among others, Juve president Andrea Agnelli, that the new league would “[put] the game we love on a sustainable footing for the long-term future, substantially increasing solidarity, and giving fans and amateur players a regular flow of headline fixtures that will feed their passion for the game” was swiftly punctured.

Toulouse Harlequins
Toulouse outgunned Harlequins on Sunday to reach the Investec Champions Cup final (Photo by VALENTINE CHAPUIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The scheme was underwritten by a $6bn loan from the biggest lender in the United Sates, New York-based investment bank JP Morgan, and that was the first telltale sign its true purpose was to make the super-rich even richer. Only two days later, Chelsea fans besieged the team bus on all sides before a game against Brighton at Stamford Bridge, to the tuneful chant of ‘You greedy bastards, you’re ruining our club’.

When news broke on social media Chelsea were looking to withdraw from the proposed league, the bus was allowed to pass on its way. The first domino may have fallen in West London, but the Football Supporters Association later summed up the feeling among the game’s rank and file perfectly: “This competition is being created behind our backs by billionaire club owners who have zero regard for the game’s traditions and continue to treat football as their personal fiefdom.”

Perhaps the biggest irony of the whole sorry episode was the teams in the proposed Super League had won 24 of the previous 28 Champions Leagues in any case, with a single club [Bayern Munich from the aptly-named Bundesliga] winning three of the other four.

It was not so much a question of creating a monopoly, as of rendering an existing monopoly even more exclusive, and even more profitable for the few rather than the many. As the Gordon Gekko character explains in the movie Wall Street: ‘It’s not a question of enough [money], it’s a zero-sum game – somebody wins, somebody loses’ – with no uplift to the game as a whole.

Rugby may lack the global support base and financial outreach of football, but there remains a danger the principle of Monopoly could restrict the growth of competition in Europe. The last four Investec Champions Cup finals have all been contested by the same three superclubs: Toulouse and La Rochelle from the Top 14 in France, and Leinster of Ireland and the URC. The last team to break down the door to that exclusive clique was Saracens [2015-2019], and even their own domestic league found the club guilty of significant salary cap breaches to take the big step up.

Where is the challenge to Leinster, Toulouse and La Rochelle likely to come from in future? The newly-arrived South African franchises in the URC have yet to make a dent in the Champions Cup, while England is still reeling from the financial collapse of three clubs in the Premiership.

If there are concrete grounds for hope, they may well derive from the inaugural Club World Cup due to be staged in June 2028. Symbolically, it is essential the knockout rounds of the new competition replace the same stages of the Champions Cup that year, rather than running alongside them, and that is what will happen.

The tournament will consist of the top eight from the Champions Cup, six from Super Rugby and [probably] two from Japan’s League One, so there is ample potential for a new global credibility to be forged. Qualification will be wholly meritocratic, with no guaranteed representation from any of the participating countries. It is an important stride towards the inauguration of a global season, with club/provincial and national competitions perfectly synchronised.

At Champions Cup level, the depth chart at Leinster and the elite French clubs is hard to match. In the two recent semi-finals, 14 of the 16 bench replacements from Toulouse and Leinster were full internationals. At Toulouse, the unvarnished truth is even stars such as All Black prop Nepo Laulala and mercurial Italian full-back Ange Capuozzo are luxuries rather than essentials.

One oft-overlooked part of the issue is while Top 14 sides start with the regulation 23-man matchday complement, they are allowed to make up to 12 substitutions in a game, a practice which results in a series of tactical ‘interchanges’ reminiscent of rugby league. The constant flow of comings and goings can be bewildering to the uninitiated. It demands more high-quality depth and tends to increase the size and explosiveness of bench athletes.

Leo Cullen Leinster verdict
Leinster saw off Northampton’s late revival to reach another Champions Cup showpiece (Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

As ex-England hooker Brian Moore commented in his Daily Telegraph podcast: “Part of the problem must be the impact of multiple substitutes. When you can train players to play for limited periods, you can accentuate [their] power and size, with the attendant injury risks.

“[When] some players have to play a full game and are unavoidably tired, you have a physical imbalance that cannot be good. If this theory has validity, the reversal of the current laws on substitutions would have extensive consequences.

“[It would] alter the fitness and physique of players. Forced to play for 80 minutes, they would have to do more aerobic work and carry less bulk.”

When Harlequins clawed their way back to a mere five-point deficit in the 53rd minute at the Stade de Toulouse, Les Rouges et Noirs promptly replaced one complete international front row with another off the bench, and substituted an international wing [Matthis Lebel] with a man who started all France’s matches at the Six Nations [Thomas Ramos].

The lineout, with replacements Julien Marchand [throwing] and 6ft 10ins of Eddie Jones favourite Richie Arnold [catching and calling] was 100% in those crucial last 25 minutes, while the red-and-black scrum got better, conceding no penalties at all – two fewer than the starting unit.

Marchand was France’s top choice at hooker before the 2023 World Cup started, but he suffered a hamstring injury in the tournament opener against New Zealand and dropped behind his clubmate Peato Mauvaka. With all his vital signs fresh, Marchand was able pour himself body-and-soul into that last half-hour, while his counterpart Jack Walker had to stay on until the 67th minute. ‘Fatigue makes cowards of us all’ as Vince Lombardi used to say, and Walker was evidently suffering when he wearily stooped to clean out Antoine Dupont at a ruck.


That cost the Quins rake 10 minutes in the sin bin at a decisive stage of the match; just to rub salt in the wound, Marchand was at the heart of the score which put the game out of reach on the very next play.


Toulouse use a shift-drive down the near-side touchline to compress the Quins’ defence on the left, and it is left to Marchand to make the key decision when to break off from the maul and link with Dupont and the rest of the Toulousain backs on the right.

The refresher provided by international quality off the bench also fortified the home kick-chase.



With the starters still on the field, Toulouse present a fragmented chase line, and Quins full-back Tyrone Green exploits a big dogleg in between the last forward François Cros [in the black hat] and the first back [number 13 Paul Costes] outside him. Quins second row Stephan Lewies gives Cros a judicious bump at exactly the right moment to ensure he cannot close the gap. To add insult to injury, Green runs straight past Cros for a second time, just at the moment he arrives at second defender for a breather after making a lung-bursting cross-field run.

The Toulouse bench effectively plugged that leak too.


On this occasion, there are seven Toulousain defenders in straight line rather than five in a broken chase, and Arnold and Marchand are prominent. It is Marchand who is still battling for the ball at the end of the ruck, and he was an unwelcome thorn in Quins’ side at the breakdown during the final half-hour.



In the first clip, the Toulouse number two has effectively doubled the French jackaling threat, menacing the first Quins ruck ball with Jack Willis still on hand to pilfer at the second. In the second clip, the ever-present hooker is on hand to support another international replacement, Argentine centre Santiago Chocobares, just in case referee Andrew Brace allows play to continue after a loose ball has been created in the tackle.

Defending sport against monopoly is a universal issue. In America’s NFL, potentially monopolistic phases in the development of the game have always been defeated by a reallocation of resources – the creation of new expansion franchises, with a changed draft system designed to promote their early success. The balance of competition has been retained.

The 2021 attempt to hijack football under cover of the pandemic was repelled by a howl of outrage from fans and true supporters of the game. Monopoly may only be a dim silhouette on the horizon for rugby, but the imbalances in the European game still need to be addressed proactively. The promotion of the Club World Cup is just the ticket, bringing the prospect of a global season one step closer. Crusaders versus Leinster, the Hurricanes or Brumbies against Toulouse. Yes please, sign me up.


Harry 55 days ago

_Crusaders versus Leinster _at the moment might be a rout! But I would like to see the Blues play Toulouse, the Hurricanes front up against Stade Francais, and the Chiefs go against Toulon.

JD Kiwi 60 days ago

With three clubs it's surely death by oligopoly!😂

I suspect that other french clubs like Montpellier rich enough to compete, they are just missing some vital ingredients.

Do you think that keeping an eight player bench but only being allowed to use four would level the playing field a bit? The 12 changes rule sounds disastrous for running rugby.

Derek Murray 61 days ago

We need a system of transfer fees. A club shouldn’t just get to sign Will Harrison when he’s been funded in NSW his entire rugby life because they have more money.

Derek Murray 61 days ago

That the pain experienced by SH clubs poached mercilessly by NH friends being now felt by the non-elite NH clubs delivers me an element of schadenfreude but if it expands the amount of poachees and opens the eyes of those new to the group then it serves a purpose.

In my pessimistic (realistic?) moments I see Oz clubs in the future acting solely as feeders for France and Japan. It’s a real possibility without change

Bull Shark 61 days ago

While all this is going on…

I’ve been thinking more about the NFL draft system and how to make the commercial elements of the game more sustainable for SA teams who precariously live on the fringe of these developments.

SA teams play in Europe now, and are welcome, because there’s a novelty to it. SA certainly doesn’t bring the bucks (like a Japan would to SR) but they bring eyes to it.

But if they don’t perform (because they don’t have the money like the big clubs) - it’s easy come easy go…

I think there is an element of strategic drafting going on in SA. Where the best players (assets) are sort of distributed amongst the major teams. It’s why we’re seeing Moodie at the Bulls for example and not at his homegrown Western Province.

20-30 years ago, it was all about playing for your province of birth. That has clearly changed in the modern era.

Maybe Moodie couldn’t stay in the cape because at the time the Stormers were broke? Or had too many good players to fit him in? Kistchoff’s sabbatical to Ireland and back had financial benefits. Now they can afford him again (I would guess).

What I am getting at is - I think SA Rugby needs to have a very strong strategy around how teams equitably share good youth players out of the youth structures. That is SA’s strong point - a good supply of good players out of our schools and varsities.

It doesn’t need to be the spectacle we see out of the states, but a system where SA teams and SA rugby decide on where to draft youth, how to fund this and how to make it that it were possible for a team like the Cheetahs (for example) to end up with a team of young stars and win!

This is the investment and thinking that needs to be happening at grassroots to sustain the monster meanwhile being created at the top.

Bull Shark 61 days ago

Is the Club World Cup and the World League, in combination, going to make or break world Rugby?

I personally think it’s too much. Established tournaments and competitions’s significance is going to be drowned out by “the new shiney Mall built just down the street”.

Mzilikazi 61 days ago

“Where is the challenge to Leinster, Toulouse and La Rochelle likely to come from in future?”

Racing 92 ? This has not been a good season for them this year, but they have a very strong squad……players like Woki, Nyakane, Kolisi, Le Roux, Lauret(these two older now), Le Garrec, Fickou, Tuisova, Arundell. With the addition next year of Owen Farrell, that is some firepower to mount a serious challenge ? And with Stuart Lancaster having a year under his belt, things should go better.

Northampton will be a year wiser, more streetwise too. And I would expect one or two of the South African sides to mount a more serious challenge, but that would depend on keeping more players at home

Jon 61 days ago

Wow, have to go but can’t leave without saying these thoughts.

And carlos might jump in here, but going through the repercussions I had the thought that sole nation representatives would see this tournament as a huge boon. The prestige alone by provide a huge incentive for nations like Argentina to place a fully international club side into one of these tournaments (namely Super Rugby). I don’t know about the money side but if a team like the Jaguares was on the fence about returning I could see this entry as deciding the deal (at least for make up of that side with its eligibility criteria etc). Same goes for Fiji, and the Drua, if there can be found money to invest in bringing more internationals into the side.

It’s great work from those involved in European rugby to sacrifice their finals, or more accurately, to open there finals upto 8 other world teams. It creates a great niche and can be used by other parties to add further improvements to the game. Huge change from the way things in the past have stalled.

I did not even know that about the French game. Can we not then, for all the posters out there that don’t want to follow NZ and make the game more aerobic, now make a clear decision around with more injuries occur the more tired an athlete is? If France doesn’t have less injuries, then that puts paid to that complaint, and we just need to find out if it is actually more dangerous having ‘bigger’ athletes or not. How long have they had this rule?

Brendan 62 days ago

You have got to consider that if the situation was flipped and the French were held to a salary cap with no English equivalent, the English would laugh in their faces and tell them to get over it. As for Leinster (as a fan), the central contract system is a dream but is guilty of cutting out the other 3 provinces.

At the end of the day, it comes across outside of the English border that the Premiership is drowning and trying to take everyone else with it rather than adapt. The English lose, the English want new rules. We've seen this repeat (and once it even led to the current Champions Cup)

You make many good and informed points, but if the flip was on the other flop, it wouldn't be Rugby’s problem I suspect - it would be a French one.

Otagoman II 62 days ago

12 subs during a game? How has that been allowed to happen NB? I hate when the game goes in this monopolistic direction closing up shop, it just becomes non sport. Btw have you seen anything of how Liam Coltman was tracking for Lyon? He has just signed to return to Otago though we have a couple of young hookers developing here. He was a popular gentle natured character down here and I’m glad to see him back but maybe he will be a mentor primarily?

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