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French rugby enjoys a popularity boom as it looks to the future

On the up: Racing 92 lift the Bouclier de Brennus Rugby World

The Top 14's governing body, the LNR, have drawn up ambitious plans to further strengthen rugby's popularity with the French public

Aug 18, 2016 6:09 AM EDT

The Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) launched its ‘strategic plan’ on Tuesday, outlining its vision for the sport in France up to and including the 2023 World Cup.

Before president Paul Goze got down to details, some statistics were served up to illustrate how rugby in France has grown since the country hosted the 2007 World Cup.

In the 2015-16 season, a total of 3.8m supporters attended Top 14 and ProD2 matches. Spectator numbers in the Top 14 have increased 40% in the past decade, rising to 68% for the ProD2. Also on the increase are club budgets. The average budget of a Top 14 club in the last ten years has rocketed 140%, from 9.67m euros to 23.38m, and its 100% for the ProD2 sides, from 3.02m euros to 6.19m.

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According to the LNR, 18,8m of France’s 66m population now profess to “be interested in rugby” with over 11m living in the northern half the country [defined as a line running east to west from Lyon to La Rochelle]. So to sum up: rugby has never been so popular and Monsieur Goze – who is up for re-election in October – intends to capitalise.

Getting down to business, the LNR president confirmed that as of 2017-18, only the club finishing bottom in the Top 14 will be automatically relegated to the ProD2, their place taken by the champions of the second division. The 13th club in the Top 14 will play the runners-up in the ProD2 with the winner playing in the top-flight the following season.

Additionally, as of 2017-18, the ProD2 season with culminate with a play-off system identical to that of the Top 14, instead of the current format that pits 2nd v 5th and 3rd v 4th with the winners meeting the following week. That means the top two at the end of the regular season will automatically go into the semi-final, while teams finishing third to sixth will play-off in a quarter-final with the winners progressing to the semis.

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From the 2017-18 season the ProD2 will also see a change in how clubs from the amateur Federale 1 are promoted to their ranks. Currently, the two clubs that win their semi-finals don’t contest a final but are promoted to ProD2. From next year onwards there will be a final with the winner being promoted; the club that joins them will be what the LNR described on Tuesday as a “wildcard”. These ‘wildcard’ clubs, who will each receive 800,000 euros from the LNR to assist in their transition from an amateur to a professional club, will be selected on three criteria. They must:

1. Be situated in the north of France

2. Have a long-term development plan

3. Come from a suitable economic and demographic region that’s able to sustain a professional club.

Three ‘wildcard’ clubs will earn promotion to the ProD2 over three seasons and then in 2020-21 a third professional league will be launched on the same lines as the ProD2. By this date the LNR is confident the Federale 1 clubs will be professional and capable of fulfilling all the relevant criteria for accession to the ProD2 in the event of promotion.

Other initiatives announced by the LNR include the establishment of a women’s championship involving teams from all of the Top 14 and ProD2 clubs, and the creation of a professional Sevens circuit.

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Few details were offered on the women’s championship but the Sevens circuit is scheduled to launch in 2017-18 featuring sides from every Top 14 club plus “a guest team”. Initially it will comprise five tournaments in different cities or towns but this number will be increased to seven in due course. Goze said that he expects teams to field sides that will be a mix of senior stars and academy players. As for the guest side, Goze said “We’ll see how the fifteenth side is composed. We have several ideas but nothing has been finalised.”

Aware of the possible objections from Top 14 presidents, many of whom are never slow to pick a fight with the LNR over the structure of the season, Goze added: “The dates will be chosen in such a way as to cause the least possible disruption [to the Top 14]. and to maximise media interest.” Asked which cities are likely to hose the Sevens series, he replied: “Cities which are not for the moment rugby cities because the goal is also to promote our sport.”

The LNR has set aside 28m euros to implement its strategic plan, a plan bristling with ambition. The times they are a-changing in the rugby world and the French are at the forefront of the innovation

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