Finn Russell believes the risk of relegation to the Top 14 is a key factor in French clubs’ Champions Cup success, with Racing 92 one of three to reach the last four, which has no Premiership side for the second consecutive year.
Russell scored a remarkable try in Racing’s victory over Sale last Sunday to secure a revenge from last season’s semi-final against La Rochelle on Sunday, while Leinster host defending champions Toulouse in the other draw on Saturday. Sale’s defeat leaves no English club behind in a tournament that has been won by a Premiership side for four of the five seasons before the start of the current lean season.
The Racing squad included Russell, Teddy Thomas and Juan Imhoff as they could call on Virimi Vakatawa and World Cup-winning stalwart Trevor Nyakane from the bench to show their strength through depth. While the salary cap in France was recently reduced, it sits at around €10m (£8.5m), significantly more than the Premiership, which has been reduced to £5m. In addition, there will be exemption for a renowned player to sit outside the ceiling, rather than two, from next season.
This led to a number of top players leaving the Premiership – Sale lost World Cup winners Faf de Klerk and Lood de Jager – and although there is no relegation for this season, the next and possibly longer dilutes the need. for such star power on a home front, it could hurt the Premiership’s chances in Europe.
“The number of players we have here in France and the recruiting we do helps a lot,” Russell said. “At the moment in the Premiership there is no relegation. Here teams drop out to stay out of this relegation battle – drop out to stay in place or get into the Champions Cup.
“There are never easy matches. In every game you have to do your best to win. This year, we lost against Biarritz and Perpignan, which are at the bottom of the ranking. We lost to them two away from home.
“It just goes to show that whether the teams are up or down, every game is a massive game. Every week you play a must-have game because if you lose two points, it puts you in a difficult position. That’s the big thing for us.
“I don’t really keep an eye on how the league is going in England. I just know that, here, where there is relegation, the teams get rid of it at the bottom because they want to stay in the Top 14. Whether it’s home or away, it makes the games so much more difficult because the teams are getting rid of to stay in the Top 14. “
Russell also believes the success of Top 14 teams on the continent goes hand in hand with the fortunes of the French national team, which won a first Six Nations Grand Slam in 12 years in March. “In general, French rugby is doing much better and it’s a country that loves rugby so with the clubs and the national team doing that, it’s attracting more and more people to 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 is physicality, there is flair, there is strategy; there is everything you want here.