Gone are the days when top French rugby players such as Philippe Sella, Thomas Castaignede and Raphael Ibanez were crossing the Channel to improve their skills and make their fortunes.
French clubs, seemingly immune to the economic crisis, have reversed the tide and are now threatening to plunder the English Premiership.
“It’s true that the transfers of English players to France are booming and it’s not a surprise because we are going through a financial crisis and rugby is now a professional sport,” Toulouse manager Guy Noves told reporters on Tuesday. “For several years, English players earned a lot of money at home but they are discovering it’s now in their interest to come and play in France because of the weakness of the pound and because English clubs like Sale and Wasps have now to reduce their costs.”
French media reports say that Toulouse have a budget of around 20 million euros (US$25 million), dwarfing that of the leading English clubs, who are further hampered by the country’s salary cap.
France flyhalf Frederic Michalak was earning 600,000 euros a year before he left Toulouse for South Africa, while England flyhalf Danny Cipriani reportedly earns around £250,000 (US$355,000) from Wasps.
Toulouse have always been renowned for their solid management, but the wealth of some French clubs is also linked to the arrival of a new generation of chairmen ready to invest huge amounts of money.
With the World Cup only two years away, French clubs discovered that it was difficult to attract New Zealand or South Africa internationals and turned instead to England.
They fired a first salvo on Tuesday when it was announced that a trio of Wasps England internationals, Riki Flutey, Tom Palmer and James Haskell were joining Brive and Stade Francais.
“It is an enormous worry for us,” Rugby Football Union chairman Martyn Thomas was quoted as saying in Tuesday’s London Evening Standard. “The French clubs pose a major danger.”
“If we were to get to a situation where there are half-a-dozen players based over in France, it would undermine the whole concept of the elite player agreement,” Thomas said before the Wasps’s trio’s moves were all confirmed.
Premier Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty said: “We have to keep this in perspective ... We’ve seen the likes of Sebastien Chabal and Raphael Ibanez playing here for several seasons.”
In related news, Former France captain Raphael Ibanez was forced to end his rugby playing career on his 36th birthday on Tuesday because of a series of concussions.
After three head injuries this season while leading English club Wasps and a two-month rest period after which he was still feeling effects, a neurosurgeon recommended he stop playing immediately.
“I tried everything to come back onto the pitch but it is just too risky,” Ibanez said.