Top 14: French Rugby Championship History and Background

Top 14 is the first division rugby union championship run by the French National Rugby League (Ligue Nationale de Rugby). While it has only adopted the name since 2005, the origins of the championship trace back to 1892, about 20 years after Britons working in France introduced the game of rugby to the nation.

Top 14: History and Operating Principles

The French rugby league, known as the Top 14 since 2005, is an annual competition between the best professional rugby league clubs in France. Created in 1892 under the aegis of the USFSA omnisports federation, it was organized by a committee in charge of rugby, before being taken over from the 1921 edition by the very young French Rugby Federation. Since 1998, it is the National Rugby League (LNR) that organizes it.

The winner of the French championship is awarded the Brennus Shield. During its long history, the French championship has been marked several times by cycles of domination of certain clubs for ten to fifteen years. In chronological order, we note the hegemony of the two Parisian clubs, Racing Club de France and Stade Français Paris (1892-1903), followed by Stade Bordelais (1900s), FC Lourdes (1950s), AS Béziers Hérault (1971-1984) and Stade Toulousain (1920s, then 1985-2001).

Between 1994 and 2008, the Stade Toulousain, the Stade français Paris and the Biarritz olympique shared the fifteen titles at stake. This hegemony of three ends in 2009 with the victory of USA Perpignan and the championship then knows different winners including Castres Olympique, RC Toulon, ASM Clermont Auvergne or Racing 92.

The championship formula has been modified several times during its history. With the introduction of professionalism in 1995, the number of clubs in the elite division has decreased significantly, from 24 to 16 and then to 14 clubs in 2005. The league has been known successively as Top 16, Top 14, Rugby Top 14 Orange following a partnership between the league and a telephone operator in 20083,4 and then again as Top 14.

The championship is played in two phases: a qualifying phase, which is played by all teams, and a final phase involving the top six clubs (the top four until the 2008-2009 season) from the qualifying phase, which is played by direct elimination. Since the 2017-2018 season, the last of this qualifying phase is relegated to Pro D2 and replaced by the winning team of the Pro D2 final, the penultimate plays its maintenance by a playoff against the other finalist of Pro D2.

Attracting the best players from both hemispheres to its clubs, monetizing advantageous TV broadcasting rights, popular with the public that fills the stadiums, the Top 14 is today considered as the richest national rugby championship in the world.

Top 14: Club Budgets

In 2009/2010, the average budget of an elite club is 14.6 million euros38 , it has increased fivefold in eight years but is three times lower than that of a Ligue 1 soccer club. In this respect, rugby is the second most important sport in France, ahead of basketball.39

The average budget of Top 14 clubs is expected to approach that of Ligue 1 clubs, but a significant gap is likely to remain as soccer remains by far the most popular sport in France and abroad, TV rights were increased in the 2007 tender (+50%) and clubs such as Rugby Club Toulonnais (€25M budget), Stade Toulousain (€35M), Stade Français (€21M) and ASM Clermont (€27M) are starting to compete with soccer clubs in terms of budget, popularity and ability to attract sponsors.

The organization of the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France has helped to further popularize rugby union outside of its traditional home regions. Indeed, almost ten years later, clubs such as RC Vannes and Provence Rugby have made their way into the Pro D2, Lille has blossomed before going bankrupt upon promotion to the second division, and Rouen is about to join professional rugby after a few years at the federal level.

Some Pro D2 clubs are also building increasingly impressive budgets with the ambition to quickly return to the elite and play an active role. For example, in the 2017-2018 season, LOU reached the semi-finals of the Top 14, two years after its return to the elite. Even more recently, USO Nevers increased its capital to become the first budget of Pro D2, ahead of Biarritz, Bayonne, Brive or Mont-de-Marsan, with in mind the construction of a competitive team in Top 14.

 

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