Source: @aubin-lipke

France’s showcase league has major problems

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Elite 1 has now suffered its second club withdrawal in two seasons. In 2022 it was Bayonne, now it is Chilly-Mazarin, south of Paris. They have forfeited all their remaining fixtures.

In a nutshell, the problem is that players in the national squad are contracted by the FFR. They are tending more and more to congregate in fewer and fewer clubs – where have we heard that before? – who don’t have to fund them. So Stade Toulousain, Blagnac (also in Toulouse), Montpellier and Stade Bordelais (the Exeter Chiefs of the French scene) have it all their own way. Their players form the bulk of the national squad and they tend to beat all their opponents with disconcerting ease.

In the view of several less affluent clubs this leads to a worrying disparity in playing strength and consequently in scores. Even the question of personal safety is raised.

The season is very cramped, requiring amateur players to train right through the winter, while trying to hold down a job. They don’t have enough time to recover from a weekend game, which may well involve a long return journey. One result is an abnormal number of injuries and a shortage of players of the right ability.

Leaders of three clubs, Lons in the south-west, Lille in the far north and Chilly Mazarin, have taken up the issue with the national union, the FFR.

Ivan Dury, speaking for C-M, said the club suffered eleven injuries in January alone. It was simply impossible to raise a team of the standard needed to ensure safety provisions. Like C-M Stade Villeneuvois Lille Métropole, the only Elite 1 team in the far north, has no men’s club to support it. That makes funding very difficult. Players tend to leave those clubs rather than join them. The Ménager sisters took themselves from Lille to Montpellier for their university studies. They have not yet returned north.

Emilie Boulard, the outstanding young full-back of the past two seasons, left C-M to join Blagnac, who now boast eleven players in the national squad.

Jean-François Lombard, president of Lons, admits that his (women’s) club could not have survived if it had not signed a contract with the men’s section in 2015.

We can point to Ovalie Caennaise, the Normandy club, who voluntarily withdrew from Elite 1 three years ago and Tarbes who closed their doors some time back. At present the northern half of France is represented by Bobigny 93, the only club in the whole of the Paris region, Lille and `Stade Rennais, the Breton club in the far north-west. The rest is desert.

It all sounds very familiar.

Alexandra Pertus, the head coach of Lille, points out the excessive demands made on players. They hardly have an evening to themselves, but the club can pay them only a pittance. They all have to work full-time to make ends meet. With Laura Di Muzio, the club president, she is aiming to raise 200,000 euros to help pay her players a very basic wage, but it’s an uphill struggle.

Dury stresses the financial inequalities permitted under the current strategy. Women’s rugby in France is at a crossroads, he claims. If the imbalances are not sorted out fast, then more clubs will go under.

He would like to see the international players more equally divided acrossd the league, but admits it would be difficult to implement. Yes, indeed.

As the FFR sees it

At the top level the strategy is to build a national team capable of beating the Black Ferns and Red Roses of this world. They have come so close to that mark, indeed France are the only team to beat the Ferns four times in succession. They ran both those sides very close in palpitating World Cup matches (24-25, 7-13 respectively). Just one step further…

The current arrangements help to further the cause of Les Bleues, but they come at a cost. Where does the squad meet for their final training sessions pre-6N? Montpellier, of course. That means less travelling for most of the squad and a sense of southern togetherness.

And who can blame the players? They all want to play in the best conditions, with the best coaching staff and training facilities. And they don’t mind being paid a decent wage either.

From that point of view alone, all is well. But the FFR is aware of the problems facing the women’s game as a whole. That is why they held a meeting at the end of Janiary to discuss these matters with all the parties concerned.

We still await a final decision.