France’s leading clubs have this month voted themselves a salary cap increase. From next season, the teams in the Top 14 will all be able to spend 10 million euros on players’ wages, a 20 per cent increase in the last two years when their purchasing power has easily outstripped that of their rivals elsewhere in Europe.
France supply five of the eight of this weekend’s semi-finalists of the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup: Toulon and Clermont Auvergne in the premier tournament, Biarritz, Perpignan and Stade Francais in the other.
Ireland have Munster in the Heineken Cup and Leinster in the Amlin. Saracens represent England, facing Toulon at what threatens to be a near-deserted Twickenham on Sunday in an encounter that will oscillate between two of the game’s metronomes, Jonny Wilkinson and Owen Farrell. Wales, Scotland and Italy are out in the cold.
Farrell is England’s incumbent outside-half and the one real difference he has with Wilkinson, his country’s leading points scorer, is that he is right-footed. Wilkinson was left-footed at the start of his career but is now two-footed, working as assiduously as he does on any area of weakness.
Farrell is also more fiery, provoked into retaliation by France in the Six Nations this year. It is hard to imagine Wilkinson planting his elbow into the face of an opponent off the ball, but otherwise they are players who believe that practice irons out most imperfections.
The danger is that the game turns into a potential Lions’ shoot-out, never mind coach Warren Gatland’s statement that he was not minded to take players who were based in France as they were unlikely to be available for the beginning of the tour.
With Jonathan Sexton not having played since the second round of the Six Nations and Farrell having melted in the heat of battle in Cardiff as England missed out on the Grand Slam as Wales, Gatland cannot afford to overdose on principle.
Wilkinson saw off Toby Flood in the quarter-final against Leicester, an exciting occasion yet dreary match in which neither side, despite a warm spring day on the Cote d’Azur, scored a try. Grit rather than wit has summed up the Six Nations and its little brother, the Heineken Cup.
Wilkinson was feted after the victory over Leicester, but the Lions need more than an accurate kicker off the floor and out of hand. Sexton has no rival in the home unions when it comes unlocking a defence with an improvised step or pass and the Lions have said they intend to be multi-dimensional.
The pity for Gatland is that most of those lining up for Clermont in Saturdays semi-final against Munster in Montpellier are not available to him. The lock Nathan Hines, a veteran of the 2009 campaign in South Africa, is one potential bolter, but what has marked out the Top 14 side this season is an ability to create in tight matches.
They achieved the double over Leinster, the holders, in the group stage, and they accounted for half of the eight tries scored in the quarter-finals. Munster were epically heroic in their victory at Harlequins, the likes of Paul O’Connell and Ronan O’Gara continuing to try to stop the march of time, but they are now a volcano that erupts only occasionally, not on demand.
Clermont have never made a Heineken Cup final, having been thwarted one stop before by Leinster last season. Too often Clermont have lacked the composure to turn position into reward. They won at Saracens in the quarter-final that year, but the Premiership leaders are more adaptable and pragmatic than they were then.
They may lack Clermont’s mercurialism, but they have attacking options outside Farrell, particularly their back three where the wing Chris Ashton has recovered his stride after appearing disoriented in the Six Nations and where Alex Goode is under-rated at full-back.
Saracens have kept pace with the French despite only having half the playing budget and, although there was also little between Leicester and Toulon in the Heineken quarter, the difference in salary caps was far more telling in the previous round of the Amlin.
Gloucester and Bath, teams outside the top four of the Premiership, enjoyed home advantage over Biarritz and Stade Francais, clubs that have spent much of the season in the bottom half of the Top 14, but they were both soundly beaten. Wasps were thumped in front of their own supporters by Leinster despite all the problems posed by their wing Christian Wade, one of the brightest prospects in England.
The Amlin quarter-finals, in the main, were high on running rugby in the way the matches in the Heineken were not, a reflection of the standing of the two tournaments – one deemed worth winning and the other seen as something below a consolation prize.
Gatland needs more than grunt, grind and three-pointers ahead of his squad announcement on Tuesday, but he has become accustomed to the European diet.