PARIS // Toulouse, Biarritz, Leinster and Munster battle for places in the Heineken Cup final this weekend, a "logical" reward for the current French and Irish domination of European club rugby. English teams have missed out on the last four of the northern hemisphere's top club competition for the first time in seven years and Toulouse manager Guy Noves said that was no coincidence. "It is logical, just look at the recent results," Noves told Reuters, referring to the triumphs of Munster and Leinster in the 2008 and 2009 European Cups and to the Six Nations grand slams completed by Ireland and France in 2008 and 2009.
"In Ireland, they have two priorities, Europe and the national team, and they are always ready to miss out on domestic league games to rest their players," he added. "That's just what Leinster did last week when they fielded their B team against Glasgow and lost by 30 points." Asked about the performances of Toulouse and Biarritz, Noves, who has led Toulouse to three European and seven French titles in his 20-year tenure, said they were a tribute to the French Top 14 competition.
"Nobody would dare to look down on our championship now. It has improved a lot and became so attractive through this wealth and quality of play that a lot of foreign players including, this season, top-class English players, have joined," he said. "They helped us improve even more the quality of our game and become more and more professional." According to Biarritz coach Jean-Michel Gonzalez, the academies which produced a generation of players led by France scrum-half Morgan Parra have given French rugby a new momentum.
"When I see all these youngsters pushing hard at club and international levels I think we are on for several good years," he said. "On the other side, the Irish are relying on an exceptional generation of players who are near the end of their careers but have a lot of experience and still play at high level if they are allowed to spare themselves which is the case," he added. Irish rugby has also benefited from contracting their players, which led to many of them returning to the four domestic provinces in the late 90s and precipitated a turn in fortunes.
At the same time, their own provincial academies produced grand slam winners from the golden generation of Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell to young British & Irish Lions like Luke Fitzgerald and Jamie Heaslip. All but three members of the 22-man squad which captured last year's grand slam began their careers at provincial level and only one, Leicester's Geordan Murphy, has played all his rugby outside the country.
Noves and Gonzalez said they were puzzled by this season's poor results of English clubs who have won the Heineken Cup six times, two more than France and Ireland, were runners-up last season and produced an all-English final in 2007. One reason is that the structure of the English club game does not lend itself as easily to the Heineken Cup as the Irish regional set-up. The money now washing around the French game also ensures their clubs have strong squads capable of competing on the domestic and European fronts.
Peter Wheeler, director of rugby at twice Heineken champions Leicester, said the Premiership's salary cap was hobbling the clubs' chances but Phil Winstanley, rugby director of England's Premier Rugby, disagreed. "We know we have had a bad year but it is not a problem that is deep-rooted, it is a one-off," he said. * Reuters