Holding court in his luxurious, open-plan Parisian office, the man running the best domestic competition in world rugby has a blunt message for his struggling English counterparts.
‘What has been corrosive within the English game is that the economical product was prioritised over the sport,’ says Rene Bouscatel, the president of France’s TOP14.
‘In France, we prioritised the sport first, building our product and competition. From the success of that, we generated an economical benefit. Not the other way round.
‘The English are kings of marketing! But if you want to sell, it needs a good product. We have built a product and it’s our competition. We’ve had two successive European champions. Our league is very attractive.’
It certainly is. Rugby is positively thriving in France. Fabien Galthie’s national side might have disappointingly exited their home World Cup at the quarter-final stage, but the sporting landscape in the country is vibrant.
French TOP14 side La Rochelle (above) have won the last two Champions Cup titles
The TOP14 is a hugely appealing competition for players both from a competitive and monetary perspective. So good is it that it has already attracted a host of English stars who have given up on international rugby to cross the Channel.
National head coach Steve Borthwick has seen Jack Willis, Jack Nowell, Sam Simmonds, Henry Arundell, David Ribbans and Joe Marchant all move to the TOP14. Kyle Sinckler and Lewis Ludlam are set to follow them.
Meanwhile, in England, the Premiership lost three teams to financial oblivion last season in Worcester, Wasps and London Irish. The contrast is huge. The chasm is gaping and ever widening.
‘The English clubs have experienced difficulties with quite a lot of players coming to France,’ Bouscatel adds.
‘It’s good news for the clubs that are signing them but I’m not sure it’s good news for rugby in general. We have both experienced highs and lows.
‘England got ahead of us at the dawn of professionalism but now they’re facing challenges. It’s damaging to take advantage of these difficulties by making lots of English players come to play in France. They bring lots to the clubs, but I don’t think it’s good for English rugby.
Jack Nowell is among the English stars who have given up on Test rugby to cross the Channel
‘It’s not good for us either. Competition is vital. You need opposition teams who are at a similar level. I take no pleasure in the plight of English clubs.
‘I probably shouldn’t say this, but Bath is a good example. They are supposed to have been building a stadium for the past 25 years. I have been there countless times and they show me the plans every time, but I haven’t seen it. I always have to take my umbrella there as it rains a lot.
‘I mean this in the nicest way possible as I’m a friend of Bruce Craig’s, but they are dreamers there.
‘We will never rejoice in the difficulties of others. Health in sport is precarious. We have experienced lows, but now we are in the highs.
‘With the English clubs it’s a real shame. The English were the only ones to have the same competition as us but perhaps creating a better second tier might have been good.
‘If we lose a club from the TOP14 for financial reasons, there’s one ready to take their place straightaway. We have a great spread of clubs emerging. I love it. There is rugby everywhere.’
England boss Steve Borthwick has also seen Jack Willis and Joe Marchant move to TOP14
Strict rules on financial monitoring and the numbers of French-qualified players who must be in a team’s matchday day squad are other reasons for the country’s rugby success.
France boasts 1,900 professional players in 30 clubs across its top two divisions. The TOP14 is in such rude health that it turned down the offer of private equity investment.
La Rochelle have won the last two Champions Cup titles and are eyeing a third straight success as European action returns this weekend.
While the Premiership, the Six Nations and United Rugby Championship have all sold large stakes in their organisations to CVC Capital Partners and New Zealand Rugby has done likewise with Silver Lake, France plough on alone safe in the knowledge they do not need external help.
‘I don’t know investment funds and I’d rather not talk to them. I would be too scared of them getting 27 per cent of the league,’ Bouscatel adds.
‘Our stadiums are full and our television audiences are on track to be better than last year. We’re getting seven to eight per cent more revenue from each match than before the World Cup and there has been a 10 per cent rise in television audiences.
‘The World Cup has improved us. The semi-finals of the TOP14 are in Bordeaux next year. In four days, we sold out both matches. For the final, in one morning, we sold 17,000 tickets.’
France boasts 1,900 professional players in 30 clubs across its top two divisions
It is no surprise that as the man at the head of a thriving organisation, Bouscatel laughs and smiles throughout the interview. He points out the TOP 14’s salary cap – how much each team can spend on their playing squad – is €10.7million.
‘How much is the English salary cap?’ Bouscatel asks.
When he is told the answer is £5m – set to rise to £6.4m for the 2024-25 season – the former Toulouse president’s face once again breaks into a broad grin.
‘Yes, a fiver!’ he says, sticking the boot into his Gallic rivals for one final time.