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THE BATTLE FOR THE SOUL OF FRENCH RUGBY

April 24, 2020 4 min read

Rugby Rugby's Howard Johnson is ringside as things get nasty between the Toulon President and the French Rugby League's big boss

   He's got a big mouth, that's for sure. But Toulon's richissime owner Mourad Boudjellal doesn't always open his gob simply because he likes the sound of his own voice. Sometimes he speaks sense. When he recently called refereeing in France “a shit job where you're paid peanuts” he hit the nail on the head. Why such a pronouncement should have caused offence within the corridors of power of French rugby might seem to be out of proportion with the nature of Boudjellal's comments at first sight. But it's what lies behind these relatively benign pronouncements that has really stirred the hornet's nest.

   Can anybody really argue with an opinion that states that for French rugby to progress, there needs to be a total overhaul of the country's refereeing system? It seems so logical as to be barely worthy of debate. Where players are now well paid for bringing a professional attitude to their sport, French referees have been left far behind. There are only two professionals in the entire country – Romain Poite and Christophe Berdos – while each Top 14 match utilises six refs; one on the field, two referee's assistants, two to deal with substitutions and one to analyse video footage. That's a lot of guys dealing with issues on which plenty of money hangs who are doing it pretty much out of love for the sport. It's archaic and plain stupid. Yet the National Rugby League President Pierre-Yves Revol has taken great exception to the Toulon President's tone and has summoned Boudjellal to appear before a disciplinary committee on January 25.

   It's true that Boudjellal used some pretty colourful language when he had a pop at Christophe Berdos after Toulon lost to Clermont 25-19 on Gameday 15. And it's clear that his blood was up and that he said things he shouldn't have in the heat of the moment. He also picked on the wrong guy if his intention was to get some serious traction behind the idea that refs need to be as professional as the main actors in the sport they control, given that Berdos is already a professional referee. But if his comments mean that we'll finally get some genuine movement towards a more professional refereeing structure overall, then it will have probably been worth the breaking of a few eggs to make this particular omelette.

   But the debate behind the debate is really about what kind of rugby France wants going forward. Boudjellal has made it very clear that he believes French rugby needs to modernise its attitudes as well as its practices. In a follow-up interview with Eurosport, far from calming things down he went on the attack, saying that French rugby needed to “blow the cobwebs away” and get rid of “these old and outdated French attitudes”. He went on to cite a homophobic joke made on television by former French skipper Fabien Pelous that wasn't roundly condemned as being indicative of an outmoded way of thinking that simply has to change. It's a clash of cultures between the old guard – traditional, conservative, keen to hang onto power – and the new – brash, emboldened and keen to see real change. Boudjellal is someone who likes nothing more than to shake the tree. At 51 he's made his money and as he himself has said he doesn't need to make any more and he certainly doesn't need to make it out of rugby. This puts him in a strong position to say what he likes and like what he bloody well says. Yes, he's probably deflected criticism of comments that were clumsy and undignified by going on the attack. But there's no doubt that French rugby is top-heavy with old school, blazer and tie types who are so out of touch with the realities of modern life that they're content to trot out the usual lines about rugby's “conviviality and values” without truly thinking about how to redefine them for a modern age. French rugby, it has to be said, is a bit of an old boy's club. And while nobody would dare mention it in a country that rejects any notion of inequality, this is also a debate about a most conservative sport that you suspect doesn't like a self-made man of immigrant stock taking it to task so publicly.

   There's no doubt that Boudjellal has balls. He's already proposed that his appearance before the Disciplinary Committee should be open to the public and the media, no doubt confident that his more 'modern' manner will play in his favour in front of a wide audience. It would make for good telly, that's for sure. But besides this diverting sideshow, what we really have here is a battle for the hearts and minds of French rugby in the disguise of a debate about refereeing standards. What image does French rugby want to create for the future? Is it serious about modernising? Or will it use Boudjellal's admittedly coarse approach to entrench itself even further in a hermetically-sealed world that has no desire – and maybe no ability – to truly change?