On Friday 17 March 2017, Sports Shorts posted about the unlikely proposed merger of two of France’s largest and most prestigious club rugby sides: Racing 92 and Stade Français. The announcement, made by the Racing 92 Chief, Jacky Lorenzetti and the Stade Français President, Thomas Savare, on 13 March 2017 sent shockwaves through the rugby world. Commentators struggled to comprehend the move calling it ‘… an utterly incredible story… unprecedented and bizarre’; players also reacted poorly to the shock move with one taking to social media to call it ‘scandalous’.

And it seems that the leaders of the two Parisian giants have bowed to public pressure: less than a week later, on Sunday 19 March 2017, it was announced that the merger was off. With the Stade Français players beginning an open-ended strike following the announcement together with the teams’ matches being postponed at the weekend amidst reports that the French rugby federation (LNR) and the Mayor of Paris opposed the move, perhaps the climb-down is no surprise.

However, in a statement on the Racing 92 website, Mr Lorenzetti said that he had ‘…decided to give this beautiful project up… Perhaps we were right too soon… The future of Stade Français will be written without us and I wish them the best’. Those words are difficult to reconcile with a person who considers that they have made a grave mistake. Similarly, Mr Savare stated that he had ‘… heard the emotion, the surprise and the incomprehension of the fans, the players and members of our association’ but stopped short of saying that he considered the proposal to have been a mistake.

The two leaders have clearly reacted quickly to stem the fallout but their subsequent statements suggest that there was a genuine and shared belief in the underlying reasons for their proposal. In this author’s opinion, the greatest insights into those reasons were to be found:

  • in comments made by the Stade Français’ Deputy-Chairman, Richard Pool-Jones, who stated that while the move was partially performance related (to build the best side in Europe) it was also motivated by a desire to find ‘…a financially viable model’ following years of ‘significant losses’; and
  • in a recollection that, in 2011, Stade Français was facing relegation from Top 14 as a direct result of its increasing debts (in 2011 estimated to be at EUR6million) and a very real threat of insolvency. The club was only saved from relegation by Mr Savare, then Director General of technology company Oberthur, whose personal investment was sufficient to prevent the French rugby regulator, the DNACG, from taking decisive action.

Mr Savare has reportedly invested EUR20million into the club since 2011 (against the wishes of his family) but has simultaneously been criticised for implementing a strict wage structure that some commentators have suggested belays a lack of desire to keep the club competitive in circumstances where other clubs are offering ‘exorbitant’ wages to attract players to their Top 14 side.

UK football fans are no stranger to the problems that can befall a club that allows its wage bill to dwarf its income (relegation and administration being two of the most extreme). However, it is difficult to tell whether the problems faced by Stade Français are isolated or indicative of a similar, burgeoning rugby-wide issue.

Evidence to the contrary can be found at a world level in the fact that world rugby has been enjoying a purple patch in terms of commercial revenue and popularity as evidenced by the RFU delivering the most lucrative’ Rugby World Cup to date in 2015. Counter arguments can also be found at the European level: the 2015 Rugby World Cup followed the 2014 announcement of the formation of European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) and its three tiered European club rugby tournaments. The EPCR’s offering was spearheaded by the successor to the Heineken Cup, the European Rugby Champions Cup, and is a tournament structure specifically designed to grow the European club rugby game from both a performance and commercial perspective. The success of rugby’s commercial offerings, together with the fact that European rugby appears to be taking its clubs’ finances seriously (the LNR and the RFU already have in place strict financial regulations allowing the governing bodies to monitor and regulate their respective clubs’ finances), allows one to hope that rugby is well placed to utilise its ever increasing commercial prowess for the long-term sustainable growth and development of the sport.

Nonetheless, there have been reports that the Top 14 clubs are finding ways to circumvent the strict salary cap imposed by the LNR, namely through paying players image rights fees over and above contractual salaries. This author would be the last person to suggest that rugby players (or any athlete in any sport) shouldn’t be adequately rewarded for their services. However, paying players monies (in whatever form) that a club simply cannot afford is neither financially sustainable nor in the long term interests of the players, the club or the sport that they represent. Let’s hope that the financial problems currently facing Stade Français are contained and swiftly resolved, for the good of the players, the club and European club rugby as a whole.