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Rugby | Heineken Cup

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All French final not so good for France



Two months after France finished last in the Six Nations championship two clubs from the Top 14 will face each other in the Heineken Cup final as money continues to talk in the club game.

Toulon and Clermont Auvergne, side by side atop the French league and among the biggest spenders in the game, will face off for Europe's ultimate club accolade in Dublin on May 18.

However, France's national team coaches are unlikely to be rushing to announce the resurrection of Les Bleus as Toulon's victory over Saracens was achieved with four Frenchmen in the starting team while Clermont overcame Munster with seven.

Philippe Saint-Andre is just the latest in a long line of France coaches to complain about the league preventing players from joining the national squad as early as some of their Six Nations rivals but club owners have different objectives.

Frustrating as it is for the national team, the policy appears to have borne fruit as French sides have proved in the Heineken Cup with 16 of the 36 finalists since the competition started in 1995.

Financial power is also on French clubs' side, as illustrated by a 2009-10 Deloitte & Touche survey that found that nine of the top 10 European clubs with the highest revenue were from the top 14 - Leicester being the odd one out.

French clubs have become richer since then and there seems no sign of any change in the balance of financial power.

Clermont have an estimated annual budget of 25 million euros ($32.57 million)while Toulon, once ridiculed for their policy of paying high wages to international "has-beens" are on some 22 million euros a year – around three times that of Premiership leaders Saracens.

This is not news to England's clubs, who have not won the Heineken Cup since Wasps landed the trophy in 2007 and have produced a weakened challenge in recent seasons.

"You would not expect Manchester United or Manchester City to operate in the Champions League on the same budget as Blackburn or Bolton," Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths lamented last year.

Saracens, like Toulon, are backed by big money investors, but the differing salary caps mean they struggle to compete for talent in an open market.

Next season base salary cap in the Premiership will be 4.5 million pounds (5.3 million euros), plus one "bonus player" while the French League's cap will rise from 9.5 to 10 million euros.

"It is not all about the money, said Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal.

"I know I'm being called 'money bag' and we wanted to show it's not that simple", Boudjellal was quoted as saying by sports daily L'Equipe on Monday.

"With Toulon, it's real players, and genuine emotion."

Although divided by finance, French and English clubs are united in demanding change in the Heineken Cup's format and have been threatening to boycott the competition after next season and set up a new one after failing to make headway in repeated discussions.

They have been complaining that country representation is unfair, with all but one Rabodirect Pro 12 (Celtic League) teams in this year's draw while the Top 14 and Premiership only have about half of their sides in the competition.

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