Can Toulon realistically join the Premiership?

Never far from controversy, Mourad Boudjellal, President of RC Toulon, has this week put pen to paper, proposing that Toulon leave the French league (Top 14) to join the English top flight. This move comes after continuous rows between the French millionaire and Top 14 about the salary cap.
At present, the Top 14 has a salary cap of €10 million (£7.7 million), which despite the beliefs of many, the Top 14 is particularly strict on. However, when you look at a side such as Toulon who boast names such as Brian Habana, Drew Mitchell, Leigh Halfpenny and Quade Cooper, it’s not hard to imagine that a bit more than €10 million is passing through the hands. This is because Toulon are currently exploiting a loophole in the Top 14 salary cap, enabling them to pay bonuses at sky high percentages of players wages.
However, Top 14 are set to change the rules and state that if players receive more than ten percent of their salary as a bonus, it will be included in the salary cap for that club. This would of course cause more than a few problem for our friend Boudjellal. Despite his claims that he’s “serious in his approach”, many think he’s just attempting to provoke Top 14 bosses to loosen the laws a little bit. Whatever it may be, what would the consequences be of such a move?
The first big problem I can see is the location. Toulon do have a large fan base and it’s certainly a desirable location for travelling fans to visit, too. However, Treviso in Italy is right beside Venice and they don’t see huge numbers travelling to their games (that is of course a reflection of the quality of their games,too). Perhaps initially the games would be attractive to travelling fans, but in reality, as we see in the PRO12, it’s not financially viable for fans to constantly travel long distances for away games. For the French fans too, derby games and old rivalries would be lost, save for the chance they may be drawn in the same European pool as Clermont for example. This brings me on to the next point, Europe.
In Europe, the current French quota is their top 6 sides and it’s the same from the Premiership. If Toulon were to change allegiance, it’s would likely cause havoc in Europe. Toulon would no longer be part of the Top 14 and therefore they could not take their usual slot as a French side. The real problem comes with the RFU. How likely are the RFU to allow a French side to potentially take the place of one of their English teams who directly feed the national side? I’d say they’re unlikely to agree to it, no matter how much of money Boudjellal throws at them.
One of the positives of the French crossing the channel would be the exposure. Arguably, English rugby is keeping up with the likes of Toulon, with sides like Wasps and Bath coming painfully close to defeating the French giants in the last few weeks and indeed Wasps sealing the deal back in November Certainly, there’s no club rugby crisis in England. However, the fact remains, Toulon still win, almost every time. Even when they don’t play well, they find a way to get the result. If English sides came up against Toulon more often and in less pressurised circumstances, it would provide a great opportunity for the young guns to try themselves against some of the best rugby players of the professional era.
The final point is the elephant in the room, the salary cap. The Aviva Premiership has a salary cap of £5.1 million cap for full, senior players and further money available for Academy players and injury cover for example By the 2017/18 season, that’s set to rise to £7 million. However, having had a look through what’s available on the Premiership rugby website, it was very hard to see whether there is any clause that covers the ‘bonus’ loophole that exists currently in the Top 14. It seems unlikely that any gap does exist though, otherwise there would certainly be even more overseas players choosing England over France. With Toulon already spending more than that in France this season, it seems highly unlikely that a move to the Premiership would accommodate them.
In the end, it’s clear that this is just another one of Boudjellal’s outrageous claims that boils down to him not getting his way and throwing his toys out. Any cross seas move would cause a number of problems for fans, the clubs and leagues themselves and of course financially. As an outsider to Toulon rugby, I hope that the Top 14 hold firm. You’re always going to have teams with better players and larger budgets, but I feel that Toulon ruin the prospect of European rugby somewhat. Teams become hell bent on beating Toulon, even just in a pool game, but Toulon always seem to prevail eventually. If they stay in the Top 14 and accept the salary cap, it would make European rugby a whole lot more exciting.

The Scribbler, January 24th, 2016

Twitter: @RugbyScribbler

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