Matt Williams would like to correct the false impression floating aroundFranceand elsewhere that he will be coachingNarbonneas of next week. Which is not to say that he won’t be coaching them next month.
French rugby comes across like a fairground attraction with financial heavyweights roaming around looking for the right spin. In fairness, a lot of them have a connection with the club they invest in. Not so sure if that’s the case with the latest winner of the lucky dip -Narbonne. A big hitter in the 1970s they have been stuck in Pro D2 since 2007 and don’t look like immediate candidates for coming back up. Enter Mattie, whose party trick is to put runaway trains back on track. At least in Leinster he did.
“I am part of a group of successful international business men and experienced rugby administrators and coaches who are looking to invest in French rugby,” he tells me, in response to the suggestion that he is to be the next Narbonne Express, as their star wing of the ’80s, Patrick Esteve, was known. “Over the past eight months the group has explored in depth the potential of several clubs in France. In March we identified Racing Club Narbonne Mediterrannee (RCNM) as a club of huge potential. Our group has been in negotiations with Racing Club Narbonne since that time. Narbonne are currently in Pro Div 2. ”
So while nothing has been signed yet, and he won’t be in the dugout next week, it’s clearly headed that way fast. It will be interesting to see if he goes straight down the road of Toulon, and now Grenoble where Bernard Jackman is still helping out, and floods the ranks with overseas players. He maintains they have the hinterland to set them up for the long haul.
“The area remains one of the richest in junior rugby talent in France,” he says. “It is this ‘nursery’ of talent that mixed with quality coaching we hope will provide a long term stream of high class players to grow the team’s performance over the next decade. We are aiming for promotion to Top 14 over the next 36 to 48 months.”
Three to four years before promotion? These must be the most patient investors in the history of professional sport. We could do with a few of those over here. Problem is it’s not a runner in Ireland, and I say a problem because if a route could be found then it might free up some cash for the domestic game. Even with an increasing IRFU turnover from circa €50m to €70 in the last three years the slice going to the domestic game has remained static on €10m. They just reported a surplus of €6.7m, yet are reducing the input to the ailing domestic game.
Two problems present themselves with outside investment in Irish rugby: not too many have a pot to pee in; and the constitution of the IRFU doesn’t encourage outside help.
Whatever about the first bit, the second is clear enough. We have a federal system where four provinces have a degree of autonomy but ultimately are controlled by head office in Lansdowne Road.
The reason the union eventually got off their backsides and contracted the players centrally – you may remember that initially they waved them off cheerily to England in 1996 – was to get control of what was a prime asset. It’s hard to structure a system that allows outside investment without ceding some central control. And first of all you’d have to want to do it. Irish rugby is a bit from that point yet. Meanwhile we’ll watch with interest the latest twist in the career of Matt Williams.