French Fried Rugby

I was looking at some very interesting statistics the other day.

England have played 974 international games since 1872, they have won 553 of those games drawn 236, and lost 183.

Oh, by the way, these are the stats for the England Football team.

Along the way they scored 2133 goals, and let in just 960. That is an impressive winning ratio of 56,77%. Their losses make up just 18,78% of all the games they have played.

In the period 1960 to 1979 they won 117 games, they lost just 33, and drew 50 games. Exactly 200 games played with a 58,5% winning ratio, losing 16,5%, and drawing 25%. That was a great era for English football, and it included a World Cup victory too.

From 1989 to 1999 they won 117 games, lost 41, and drew 71 games. Another 229 games, with a slightly lower 51,1% winning ratio, a slightly worse losing ratio of 17,9%, and a lot more games drawn, 31%. Still a pretty good average winning ratio.

Let’s look at the modern era.

From 2000 to 2017 the records say they have won 111, lost just 36, and drawn 53. Another 200 games, winning all of 55,5%, just 18% losses, and 26,5% drawn. Very impressive some may say.

It all looks so good on paper, until we delve a bit deeper. The modern era has seen an influx of many “new” countries into the game, lesser teams who all get the chance to play in the big league. And they all get to play against England. England beats all of the minnows, most of the time, with a glitch in the system every now and then. A loss from time to time is expected, as Muhammad Ali famously said: “Even the best has to figure to get beat sometime….”

It all looks so good, a 55,5% winning ratio is perfectly acceptable, until we analyse the England football team’s results with a magnifying glass, then we begin to see a different story.

Playing against the minnows they have had remarkable success, with just a couple of stumbles along the way.

They have happily disposed of the likes of Albania, Paraguay, South Africa, Slovakia, Liechtenstein, Turkey, Serbia & Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia, Iceland, Switzerland, Ukraine, Poland, Azerbaijan, the USA, Colombia, Uruguay, Hungary, Jamaica, Ecuador, Andorra, Estonia, Trinidad & Tobago, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Slovenia, Egypt, Japan, Algeria, Bulgaria, Montenegro without Serbia, San Marino, Moldova, Peru, Lithuania, Australia, and Malta. They have beaten all of them with easy regularity.

But: None of these could really be considered top tier competitors.

Against fiercer competitors the record is somewhat less impressive..

They have played arch-rivals Germany 10 times, winning 4, losing 3 and drawing 3. The record against Brazil reflects 7 games, 1 win, 3 loses and 3 draws. France is slightly better, 7 games, still just 1 win, but only two losses and four draws.

Against Spain the record is pretty even, 6 played, 2 wins, 2 losses, 2 draws. Russia, 1 win two draws, Portugal 1 win, 3 losses and 2 draws. Italy gives them 1 win, 3 losses and two draws,

England have played the Netherlands 8 times, losing 3 and drawing 5 games.

Against the 8 teams mentioned above, England have played 53 games, winning just 11, losing 19, and drawing 23.

That is a winning ratio of just 20%. Losses are 36%, and draws 43%.

That is a very troubling statistic for England Football fans. If we go back to the statistics for the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, the winning ratio against top tier teams was around 50%, in the modern era it is almost as bad as the rugby Springboks in 2016!!!

And the roots of this downward trend in results can very easily be traced back to the time when English football dropped all restrictions on foreign player participation. They threw open the doors to their leagues, allowing unlimited numbers of foreign players to flood in and take over (lucrative) playing positions from locally born talent.

The obsession with a winning team in the club leagues has killed the international team.

A quick look at a team like Arsenal shows that they have very very few England born or qualified players on their books. Both their goal keepers are foreign, just two of nine defenders are English, Holding and Chambers. Two of nine midfielders are English, Wilshere and Maitland-Niles. 3 of 7 forwards, Walcott, Welbeck and Akpom. Of the five players they have on loan, just Jenkinson is English.

Just 8 of the 32 in the First Team Squad are English! In the English Premier Division!!

Manchester United are a little better, 10 England qualified players in the 32 listed as Frist team players.

Manchester City have 9 Englishmen, two of which are on loan. Their squad is given as 32.

Three clubs, 27 English players out of 96!

As the globalisation of the Premier League has progressed, English football has lost its place in the international rankings, FIFA’s website tells us that in January 2018 England is rated a lowly 15th in the world, behind such giants as Colombia, Peru, Switzerland, and even Chile. This despite having the biggest, most successful, most lucrative, most watched football league in the whole wide world.

There is something very wrong with that!

But, hey, this is an article about rugby, on a rugby site… What’s with all the football stats? Who gives a toss what has happened to England soccer???

Well, actually, this is an article about French Rugby.

In recent times France have won just seven of their last 21 tests, and those wins, much like those of England’s football teams, have mostly been against the minnows of the rugby world. This dismal 33% winning record has resulted in coach Guy Noves getting the boot. His predecessor, Philippe Saint-Andre was not much better, he achieved a 44%-win record and was also handed the Order of the Boot.

Sadly, I think the wrong men are being blamed for France’s woes! Reminds me of Christy Moore’s epic ditty “Scapegoats”.

We can understand the need for someone to take the blame! If we look back to the year 2000, France were easily maintaining a 60% winning ratio.

Overall, since records were kept, France have played 729 Tests, and won 404 of them, losing 293, and drawing just 32. That is an overall 55% winning ratio, which is a fairly good average.

Perhaps another statistic to illustrate the problem: Up to the year 2000 France averaged 25 points per game, since 2015 their average points for is hovering around 12.

What is the real problem in France?

Think back to the great days of French rugby. They were always one of the great teams to watch. They played exciting, spectator friendly rugby! Spectators were thrilled by elusive backs with superb handling skills, great brawling packs of forwards, and a team that could, and did, beat anyone. They were the All Black’s nemesis, knocking them out of World Cups and denying them Grand Slam tours time and again.

They had style, they had a brand of rugby that was all their own, and they had magnificent rugby players.

And then they opened their doors to a massive influx of foreign players, all in an attempt to make their Top 14 clubs as strong as possible. Billionaire owners threw generous amounts of tax-deductible Euros at the rugby clubs. (Despite the French Rugby Union itself running at a substantial loss, and the revenues from the game itself – gate money, broadcast revenues, ground advertising and sponsorships notwithstanding – not being sufficient to fund the lavish salaries and expenses of the imported players.)

Regulated salary caps were ignored; regulations with regard to player benefits were ignored; and any attempt to enforce World Rugby’s international windows and regulations regarding the availability of players for national duty was met with aggressive non-compliance and disdain. Clubs and Club owners were adamant that club came before country!

Look at the numbers involved: There are 596 players registered to the fourteen top tier clubs, those that play in the Top 14 competition. Of these, 257 are foreign players. Close to 44% of the players in the top league are not qualified to play for France.

Four of the clubs in the Top 14 competition have squads comprising more than 50% foreigners.

One club, Oyonnax, can field an entire match day squad of foreigners. Montpellier, Toulon and others are very close to that too.

The problem is not confined to the Top 14 clubs. Foreigners, rugby mercenaries if you like, are found at every level of the game in France. The professional clubs, the semi-professionals, and even the amateur clubs have all signed up foreign players to bolster their playing staff and give them a better chance of rugby glory.

During 2016 the Rugby World magazine conducted some in-depth research into what they called “The Great Migration” of rugby players from the Southern Hemisphere and the Pacific to the northern leagues.

They found that somewhere around 600 players of Pacific Island decent are playing in France alone. Fiji apparently provides the largest single contingent of these migrants. (Many more Pacific islanders are found in English clubs and leagues, although the exact number has not been quantified.)

Who can blame a kid with a bit of rugby talent grabbing the opportunity to escape the poverty of life in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga or any other island you could name and go and possibley earn a decent living in Europe? If the opportunity is there, go for it. (Add in the depredation of Australian and New Zealand recruiters….)

The damage done to rugby in the Pacific is immense. Local clubs, leagues, and their international sides are deprived of a remarkable pool of superbly talented youngsters who are effectively lost to the game.

There are also some very sad side effects to this recruitment drive. Playing in France is not all wine and roses for the boys from the Pacific! Islander kids who cannot fit into French society, who struggle with the language, the culture and habits of the country they are living in, homesickness, and the dawning of the truth that playing for an amateur or low-level semi-professional club is not a ticket to rugby wealth or glory. A number of these kids have committed suicide, or gone off the rails in other ways. (Tarbes prop Isireli Temo is one of the high profile suicides, in December 2016.) However, this is a discussion for another place and time.

It is not only the Pacific that has seen the French recruiters working overtime.

Jurie Roux, CEO of the South African Rugby Union recently said that 373 South African players were recorded as playing in France’s top two leagues! He also spoke of the openly visible recruitment operations of the French clubs at the South African Schools Craven Week tournament, at the various U/18 squads and rugby academy events, even at the provincial and national U/21 tournaments. Recruitment agents and their assistants have been found wandering the corridors, lecture rooms and practice fields of the various provincial rugby academies.

It is more than recruitment, quite simply, it is poaching.

Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Namibia, Zimbabwe, wherever you turn, the fingerprints of French recruiters are visible.

I must add that it not just France! England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland also have their talent scouts and recruiters working across the rugby playing world. They are just not quite as aggressive as their French collegues in their pillaging of rugby talent.

I guess we could say that the influx of foreign players has had nothing more than a mildly beneficial effect on French rugby? In the modern era, since the watershed moment of 1995 and the arrival of professional rugby, a French team won the old Heineken Cup seven times in 19 years (1995 – 2014). Since the conversion to the Champions Cup they have won it once, Saracens won the trophy twice to make up the three such competitions so far.

That is not a hugely successful outcome, is it? Eight wins in 21 attempts. Far from becoming the dominant force in European club rugby, they have simply stumbled on into mediocrity. I would suggest that they would have done better if their focus had been on nurturing home-grown talent.

And now for the bigger picture:

This influx of unrestricted numbers of foreign-born players is hurting French rugby beyond all description. The overwhelming, and seemingly never-ending influx of foreign players is critically affecting the performance of the national team. There are simply not enough experienced and talented players in the Top 14 teams from which to choose a competitive national team!

Their own players are deprived of top level experience, exposure, and development opportunities. Lower down the pecking order, the youngsters coming up into rugby from schools, training colleges, and universities are no longer attracted to rugby as a sport, and a possible career, as they see a lack of opportunity in the game. What is the point, if you know that you are competing with a host of eager South Africans, Fijians, Samoans, Aussies, New Zealanders, Argentineans and even some Namibians for a place in your own country’s rugby clubs?

Whilst the Top 14 stadia often host capacity crowds, down at the roots of the game it is in severe danger of withering and dying.

And the ultimate loser is the French national side.

Yet, the impact of this ongoing player migration is not limited to damaging French rugby in the medium to long term, it threatens the very existence of the game across the globe.

The flip side to the degradation of French rugby is the loss of quality players that countries like New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa, and Australia suffer in their own national competitions, the Super Rugby competition and, sadly, in their international teams.

Not only are the All Blacks, the Wallabies, the Pumas and, especially, South Africa’s Springboks deprived of quality players competing for places in the national team, the loss of quality players is felt right down to the club level as the senior players, who are retiring from the top levels, no longer return to lower levels to mentor the youngsters coming through the system. The player drain directly affects the national competitions at every level too.

Whilst many South Africans believe that the player drain is a uniquely South African problem, blaming it on all manner of cause and culprit, from the weakness of the economy and local currency to political interference in the game, quotas, et al, the reality is that it affects the rest of the Southern Hemisphereans equally.

Lima Sopoaga’s shock exit from New Zealand Rugby has highlighted the problem in All Black ranks. Since 2007, no less than 60 All Black capped players have headed off to Europe. We can certainly expect a couple of the older warhorses to be heading north for some low impact rugby while boosting their retirement kitty, but nearly half of the All Blacks (29 out of the 60) who left for a bigger pay packet in European have been 28 or younger.

The problem is growing in leaps and bounds for the New Zealanders. Players with just over 20 All Black test caps heading north midway through their careers. Malakai Fekitoa left with 24 test caps, and aged just 25. Tawera Kerr-Barlow is 26 and has 27 caps. Charlie Piutau was just 23 when he chose the north over an All Black contract! Colin Slade, Luke McAlister, Tom Taylor, Aaron Cruden, all were still in their mid to late 20’s when they left.

Over in Australia the problem is equally frightening.

If we take a long term, worst case scenario view of the situation, the player drain to the Northern club competitions has the potential to completely destroy rugby in the Southern Hemisphere. It also has the potential for destroying the game in the North!

As the game deteriorates down south, the quality of players recruited to the north will diminish. That stream of recruits will dry up. They will also have destroyed their own feeder stream of junior rugby players who have gone to other sports or activities while rugby is completely addicted to the Foreign Legion. Young players are deprived of aspirational goals to represent the club of their choice and perhaps progress to national level.

Bernard Laporte, the President of the French Rugby Union has seen the problem, and has publically said that he intends to reduce the number of foreigners in match-day squads down to just five. The billionaire club owners are angrily haggling for seven. They take no longer term view on rugby, it is all about the here and now.

Laporte has gone about enforcing his view in a fairly clever way. He has changed the rules. Now clubs are fined for not toeing the line regarding the import rule. This might not hurt the billionaires much, but it impacts on the club’s finances and salary pool. More importantly, the clubs also lose competition points! And this has a serious impact on their bottom line, while impacting on the munificent benefactors’ bragging rights.

Laporte’s actions are welcomed, even if they only address the visible top-layer of this multi-layered cake that is French Rugby. There is still no restriction on recruitment down at the lower levels of the game.

French rugby might recognise the problem, especially at the level of their national team, but it will have little or no impact in other northern countries.

The England national team is riding the crest of the wave, so there is little motivation to change. They also have the largest number of registered rugby players in the entire rugby playing world, reporting over 340 000 senior players and total numbers of over 2 million. (Source: World Rugby Yearbook.)

At the moment, the influx of foreign players is not perceived as a problem for England, but I venture to suggest that in the not so distant past the influx of foreigners into Premiership Rugby did hurt the national team a lot, and it is likely that this can happen again.

There will also be those that adopt a purely parochial view and suggest that the problems of the southern hemisphere and the Pacific islands are of no concern of theirs. They will continue to support the club of their choice, and if their national team becomes the dominant team in world rugby, so much the better. They do not care what happens to the rest of the world.

That isolationist view will surely see the game die.

Rugby is not football. Football has an almost inestimable, and certainly uncountable, level of participation across the world. This is simply not true of our game of rugby. Rugby, despite the best efforts of World Rugby and the national unions across the world, has a finite talent pool. This pool is in danger of being drained, becoming contaminated, and potentially becoming a small pond at the bottom of the sports garden.

The parochialists view would result in a few countries becoming very strong while others become weak, probably lose interest, and go and play another sport altogether.

Is that what we want for rugby? Do we really want to see the game shrink and wither? Or do we want to see ongoing international participation and growth? If I may use another’s suggestion: Perhaps it’s better to be a smallish fish in a large pond than end up as a big fish in a small pond.

In an ideal world, the migration of players from one country to another must surely be controlled for the benefit of the game, and thus everyone’s long-term interests.

I believe that it is time for World Rugby to take a long-term view of the game they are charged with nurturing, protecting, and administering. They must find a solution to the issue of Rugby Migration.

I can hear the shouts of the parochialists, the politically correct, and the modernists – “Restraint of Trade” and “It’s every one’s right to earn a living…” “You cannot restrict movement..” and “It’s a professional game and you can practice your trade wherever you like…”

Yep, you might be correct in so many ways, but I do not care! This is not about the rights of an individual, it is about the rights of the game itself.

In much the same way as countries restrict the work permits and working visas they give to the hoards that wish to enter their local economies, so too Rugby should restrict the “visas” they provide.

This is about the protection of the game, of everyone’s interests rather than pandering to the few.

In addition, World Rugby must take a very strong view on the migration of players across national boundaries and then representing an adoptive country rather than the country of their birth.

In May 2017 World Rugby did tighten up their rules, but I do not believe they went far enough.

Their new Regulation 8 specifies:

* • From 31 December 2020, the residency period for players wanting to qualify for the country in which they now live will be extended from 36 consecutive months to 60 consecutive months – ie, five years.

* • Anyone who has moved countries before the end of 2017 will still fall under the 36-month rule, because they might have signed contracts with a view to qualifying on residency before the Regulation 8 change was announced.

* • Players can now also qualify on residency if they have lived in a country for ten cumulative years. For example: they might have spent eight years living in England as a child, left the country, and then returned and then played in England for another two years.

* • From January 2018, U20 teams can no longer be classed as a country’s ‘next senior national representative team’. That means playing U20 rugby for one nation won’t prevent you from playing for a different one at Test level.

* • 7’s players will only be “captured” by a country and thus unable to represent another nation if: a) They were 20 or older when representing the senior sevens team or, b) they have reached the age of majority (this can differ depending on what country you’re from) when competing in an Olympics or Sevens World Cup.

Whilst the above makes it very clear that you need to reside in a country for at least 5 years before you can play for them, it still does not address the issue of citizenship. In 2015 Quade Cooper was caught out by the Olympic requirement that he had to be a citizen of Australia to be able to represent the Aussies at the Olympic 7’s. He had been playing rugby for the Wallabies for years, whilst still a New Zealand citizen!

I do believe that anyone who chooses to play for another country must also be a citizen of that country. Scott Spedding might have been born in South Africa, but he is a French citizen, and thus will always be a French rugby player, I respect his decision to obtain citizenship and fully accept his new country. He is a great example of someone doing the right thing.

I am not so sure of the likes of Josh Strauss, WP Nel, CJ Stander, Rory Kockott – are they truly citizens of their new, adoptive countries? Or do they travel under dual citizenship? I do not know, but I do question their status.

In summation, I do believe that Rugby faces many issues in the modern era.

A rule book that is overly complex and pedantic. A game that has become less than exciting in many respects. Over-congested international and national seasons. Overly long seasons. A serious lack of understanding and scientific knowledge of the long-term impact of the modern game on the health and survival of players into later years of life.

And then the most serious of them all, the insidious impact of Player Migration on the health of our game.

It is time to find solutions, now!