Finn Russell believes the jeopardy of relegation in the Top 14 is a key factor behind the success of the French clubs in the Champions Cup with Racing 92 one of three to reach the last four, which features no Premiership teams for the second year running.
Russell scored a remarkable try in Racing’s victory over Sale last Sunday to ensure a rematch of last season’s semi-final against La Rochelle, on Sunday, while Leinster host Toulouse, the defending champions, in the other tie on Saturday. Sale’s defeat leaves no English clubs in the reckoning in a tournament that was won by a Premiership side for four of the five seasons before the current lean spell began.
Racing’s side featured Russell, Teddy Thomas and Juan Imhoff while they were able to call on Virimi Vakatawa and the World Cup-winning prop Trevor Nyakane from the bench in a show of their strength in depth. While the salary cap in France has recently been reduced, it sits at around €10m (£8.5m), significantly more than the Premiership, which has been trimmed to £5m. Furthermore, there will be dispensation for one marquee player to sit outside the cap, rather than two, from next season.
That has led to a number of high-profile players leaving the Premiership – Sale are losing the World Cup winners Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager – and though the fact there is no relegation for this season, the next and possibly longer dilutes the need for such star power on a domestic front, it could be hurting the Premiership’s chances in Europe.
“The number of players we have here in France and the recruitment we do, that helps a lot,” said Russell. “In the Premiership just now, there’s no relegation. Over here, teams are scrapping to stay out of that relegation battle – scrapping to stay up, or get into the Champions Cup.
“There are never any easy games. Every game, you have to play your best to win. This year, we’ve lost to Biarritz and Perpignan, who are at the bottom of the league. We lost to both of them away from home.
“That just shows that whether teams are high up or low down, every game is a massive game. Every week you are playing in a must-win game because if you drop two points, it puts you in a tough position. That’s the great thing for us.
“I don’t really keep an eye on how the league is going in England. I just know that, over here, where there is relegation, teams are scrapping at the bottom because they want to stay in the Top 14. Whether they are at home or away, it makes games so much harder because teams are scrapping away to stay in the Top 14.”
Russell also believes the success of the Top 14 sides on the continent goes hand in hand with the fortunes of the France national side, who clinched a first Six Nations grand slam in 12 years in March. “In general, French rugby is getting much better and it’s a country that loves rugby so with the clubs and the national team doing that, it gets more and more people into rugby.
“It’s different – the Top 14 compared to the Premiership or the URC. The style of rugby changes from team to team, but also from competition to competition. In the Top 14 there’s physicality, there’s flair, there’s strategy; there’s everything you want here.”