CHRIS FOY: French have upper-hand as Top 14 stranglehold could tighten

CHRIS FOY: French have the upper-hand as Premiership sides Sale and Exeter crumble in Champions Cup… the foundations are set for Top 14’s stranglehold to tighten

  • Sale and Exeter have gone crashing out of the Champions Cup quarter-finals 
  • It leaves no Premiership clubs to compete in the semi-finals of the competition 
  • The French Top 14 has three sides left, signalling a chance to tighten their grip 

It looked like a walkover had occurred as Europe’s leagues were being judged on Champions Cup quarter-final results and the final scoreline read: Top 14: 3, Pro 14: 1, Premiership: 0.

Another chastening weekend for the English elite saw Sale well beaten in La Rochelle and Exeter’s title defence turn to dust as they let a 14-0 lead slip to lose at home to Leinster.

Their demise came a week after Gloucester, Wasps and Bristol had been ejected in the round of 16 — and the presence of Bath and Leicester in the Challenge Cup semi-finals was a modest consolation, given the half-hearted attitude of many French sides to the secondary competition.

The Premiership is out of representatives in the Champions Cup as Exeter and Sale fell out 

The Top 14 had three teams in the semi-finals, as the French look to dominate the tournament

With the Premiership salary cap cut kicking in next season, there is every chance that the Gallic clubs will become ever more dominant in continental rugby, if they commit to it.

The professional game across the Channel is more vibrant than it is here, where ring-fencing is also on the way. But comparing the leagues is complex.

The Top 14 have more money than the rest, more quality imports, more coverage and more fans. It should be the best product but that is not always the case — as Sunday’s all-French Champions Cup quarter-finals proved.

Premiership sides could fall behind with teams’ salary budgets set to be decreased next term 

Bordeaux v Racing 92 was surely one of the worst European occasions ever witnessed — a mess of poor execution and stodgy tactics derided as ‘absolute dross’ on BT Sport.

Soon after, Clermont Auvergne and Toulouse were similarly content to engage in a turgid arm-wrestle.

As for Celtic claims that Leinster’s success at Exeter was a victory for the Pro 14, that is nonsense. The Irish province are standard-bearers for their own talent production line, not for the league they win without even trying.

Northampton’s Wales fly-half Dan Biggar, for so long a proud Osprey, was talking about the Premiership when he told the All Access podcast: ‘The intensity blows the Pro 14 out of the water.’

Leinster got past Exeter but their victory means little for the health of their Pro 14 league 

Adding South African teams may create more intensity, but those fixtures cannot conjure the rivalries which exist in England and France.

In any European leagues table, the Pro 14 lies a distant third. But which league is best?

While the Premiership is the most competitive, becoming a closed shop may change that. Even the pre-eminent French clubs can be erratic, but the balance of power lies with the Top 14. 

Six Nations in limbo  

Ireland’s clash with France in the Women’s Six Nations in Dublin on Saturday is in doubt due to heightened Covid restrictions.

Tournament organisers are desperate for the match to go ahead and no wonder — the event urgently needs competitive fixtures to elevate it.

Ireland may have to wait to take on France as the nation plunges into even tighter restrictions

The latest games were brutally one-sided as England crushed Italy and Wales were swept aside by the Irish. Four mismatches to date have yielded winning margins of 42, 53, 64 and 45 points.

This year’s rescheduled women’s competition is occupying its own window, which presents a profile-raising opportunity —providing proper contests are staged.

More unions need to invest in their women’s teams but at a time of financial turmoil that prospect is remote. 

Lions press-on weakened

The Lions still intend to announce their full coaching staff on Tuesday, despite Andy Farrell, Steve Borthwick and Graham Rowntree ruling themselves out of the South Africa tour. 

Their absence will deprive head coach Warren Gatland of vast know-how from past British and Irish crusades but he evidently feels confident in his fall-back plans.

One of those is likely to involve the inclusion of Robin McBryde, who was part of Gatland’s Wales set-up for many years and is now an assistant coach at Leinster, which means he has knowledge of leading Welsh and Irish forwards. 

Warren Gatland will rue the absence of key coaching staff when he announces his coaches 

Sportsmail understands that England coach John Mitchell is not being considered to oversee the Lions defence. 

Steve Tandy has done a fine job with Scotland and has emerged as the preferred option. What is certain is that Neil Jenkins will coach the kickers and that Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend will be the attack guru.

Tasty semi-finals duels 

The semi-finals of the Champions Cup provide intriguing playmaker sub-plots. La Rochelle v Leinster will see past and present Irish No 10 icons collide.

Ronan O’Gara is the head coach of the French club hoping to reach Europe’s showpiece final for the first time.

In the path of the former Munster No 10 is Johnny Sexton — the man he competed with for a Test shirt and went on to mentor at Racing 92.

In the other semi, Toulouse v Bordeaux pits France’s fly-half contenders, Romain Ntamack and Matthieu Jalibert, against each other. Their duel could be an artistic classic.

This column will punt on a Toulouse-La Rochelle final. 


15 J Larmour (Leinster)

14 T O’Flaherty (Exeter)

13 G Doumayrou (La Rochelle)

12 R Henshaw (Leinster)

11 R Rhule (La Rochelle)

10 M Jalibert (Bordeaux)

9 A Dupont (Toulouse) 

8 J Conan (Leinster) 

1 J Poirot (Bordeaux)

2 P Bourgarit (La Rochelle)

3 U Atonio (La Rochelle)

4 W Skelton (La Rochelle)

5 D Toner (Leinster)

6 G Alldritt (La Rochelle)

7 J van der Flier (Leinster)  


Top try

La Rochelle’s first against Sale was a gem, with Ihaia West’s cross-kick to the left wing taken by No 8 Victor Vito, who stepped inside and delivered a sublime off-load for Gregory Alldritt to score.

Instant impact

Ross Byrne came on for Johnny Sexton and swiftly emerged from his shadow, as the Leinster playmaker helped conjure a try for Jordan Larmour and converted from wide on the right.

Super shove

Sale’s pack were no match for the monstrous Uini Atonio and Will Skelton, on the tighthead side of La Rochelle’s scrum, who led a set-piece demolition in the 19th minute.

Will Skelton (picture centre) and Uini Atonio overpowered Sale Sharks in action for La Rochelle

Honest take

Exeter director of rugby Rob Baxter conceded his side lacked composure against Leinster. ‘We went into meltdown mode a bit too early,’ he said. ‘The scoreboard wasn’t as bad as the players started to think it was.’

Official send-off

referee Matt Carley had to inform weary Racing 92 lock Donnacha Ryan that his time was up, saying: ‘You’ve done your business, haven’t you? I think you’re being replaced.’

Sock it to them

Clermont Auvergne’s France wing Damian Penaud evidently thought he was appearing on Centre Court at Wimbledon — he seemed to be wearing white tennis socks against Toulouse. 

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