“We hoped for something else.” The words spoken by the Montpellier owner, Mohed Altrad, after he had released the New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden eight months early would be a fitting title for a book on the big-name signings made by clubs in France and England over the years.
Cruden, who joined Super Rugby’s Chiefs this year, was reportedly paid an annual £700,000 by Montpellier, whose ambitions are funded by Altrad rather than the income generated by a club that have one of the lowest average attendances in the Top 14. Not bad for someone who for most of his international career was second choice, first to Dan Carter and then to Beauden Barrett.
The All Blacks are the biggest brand in the game and their players command a price that excitable French owners, who appear to do little research beyond where potential recruits come from, have been happy to pay. Toulon’s Mourad Boudjellal harvested New Zealand players when he owned the club, often lamenting that his purchases quickly depreciated in value after reaching France, with even Ma’a Nonu singled out for attack.
Nonu was one of six backs who started the 2015 World Cup final against Australiawho went on to join a Top 14 club. Julian Savea went to Toulon and was also singled out by Boudjellal. Nehe Milner-Skudder signed for Toulon in 2019 but never made an appearance because of a shoulder injury; there were suggestions his contract was not approved by the league. Conrad Smith went to Pau, Ben Smith’s destination after last year’s tournament in Japan. Carter was tempted to Paris by Racing 92’s offer of more than £1m a year, and only Aaron Smith has stayed at home.
Cruden’s time at Montpellier was blighted by injuries, as was Carter’s at Racing. Another All Black 10, Lima Sopoaga, has struggled since joining Wasps in 2018, although he was in his best form for the club before the lockdown. A couple of months ago he talked about the difficulties of adjusting to life in a new country, saying: “We do not have our support networks here. There’s a whole bunch of things, but I make no excuses for my poor form over the last year or so.”
There have been many examples of successful signings, not least Nick Evans at Harlequins who quickly adapted to the slower, more structured nature of the Premiership. When Gareth Anscombe arrived at Cardiff Blues from New Zealand, he took time to adjust to the wavelength of the team, at times making plays that would have been read by Super Rugby teammates but confounded his new colleagues.
Boudjellal struggled to understand why a player who had been part of a World Cup-winning team could not make the same impact in the Top 14. His most successful recruit from outside France was Jonny Wilkinson and he expected every other big-name signing to have as profound an influence as the fly-half he signed from Newcastle.
Wilkinson was exceptional, sacrificing everything in his pursuit of excellence, and became fluent in French as he immersed himself in his new surroundings. The England World Cup winner was handsomely paid but was driven, as ever, by the desire to succeed and be the best he could, helping Toulon reach the summit in Europe.
Which is why owners should do their homework. Simply expecting a player with a wealth of caps and a track record of success to fit in immediately, yielding an instant return on a substantial investment, is a folly that should be tempered by the current crisis that is stretching every professional club. High-profile signings, especially in France but on occasion in England, have been driven by owners rather than coaches, vehicles to sell season tickets and merchandise.
Backs are more attractive in that regard than forwards, although the latter tend to offer more value for money. Carter was treated like royalty on his arrival in Paris and mobbed by crowds, but he admitted to being surprised by the more hands-on approaches of coaches in Europe, with less input sought from players than he was used to.
The Top 14 is a 10-month grind, with 28 matches before the play-offs and European games on top. Expensive imports are expected to play a full part. With these players used to being managed and rested when needed, is it a surprise that so many pick up injuries regularly? There is no urge to entertain as there is in the south, and many become absorbed in the largely unambitious nature of club rugby in Europe. It is a theme Eddie Jones tellingly touched on in the England head coach’s recently published autobiography.
Were it not for the offers to more than double their salary, how many would give up their international careers for life in a foreign country? What was a superannuation package for players whose time at the top level was all but over has changed, with younger players such as Sopoaga and Charles Piutau tempted over in recent years. Does the lack of an international place to play for affect players who are inherently competitive?
It is not just players who travel from the other side of the world whose footprint is hard to make out. The Wales scrum-half Rhys Webb left Toulon in a flurry of insults and the Lions No 8 Taulupe Faletau has spent much of his time at Bath in the treatment room, like Liam Williams at Saracens and Leigh Halfpenny at Toulon. On the other hand, Finn Russell has settled at Racing while Luke McAlister had a successful six years at Toulouse.
Kurtley Beale is joining Racing, along with Luke Jones, part of an expected Australian exodus given the financial problems there, while South Africa’s Super Rugby players have until Thursday to decide whether to accept a 40% pay cut or move overseas. Owners will be more discriminating and less impulsive now, investing far less in hope. They have to be.