Forget what you think you know about Top 14 budgets – the numbers released in public are misleading and often misunderstood
The mind-blowing Top 14 budgets revealed this week reinforced the view that French clubs really are playing in a different league.
However those numbers are misleading and often misunderstood.
We regularly see bold statements comparing the Premiership's Â£5m salary cap with astronomical figures like Toulouse's â‚¬35m budget.
Clermont (â‚¬27.9m) Toulon and Racing (both â‚¬25.4m) are next in line, but those figures don't refer to the wage bill, so it's a case of comparing apples and oranges.
Often ignored in discussions of French riches, is the salary cap in place in the Top 14, with the amount teams can spend on their squad restricted to â‚¬10m (just under Â£8m).
That number is still a great deal higher than the wage bills of Premiership clubs, even with their marquee player allowance, but the difference between the two is not quite as stark as some make out.
In fact, according to the latest findings from the Direction Nationale d'Aide et de ContrÃ´le de Gestion (DNACG), which publishes an annual report of Top 14 finances, the six wealthiest clubs in France (the four mentioned above along with Stade FranÃ§ais and Montpellier) spend just 32 percent of their budget on wages.
That is because many of the French clubs are much larger businesses, which comprise of more than simply a rugby club.
Take Toulouse for example, who run four club shops dotted around the city, and even at the local airport, as well as the Stade Toulousain Brasserie, a successful restaurant.
This is not your standard rugby club, it's a business that offers a great deal more, and explains why, despite disappointing results on the pitch, the budget remains well clear of the next highest in France.
When it comes to wages, Toulouse were actually only second in France in 2012/13 (the most recent DNACG report), behind Toulon, despite a budget that was more than â‚¬10m higher.
It's a similar story with Castres, often commended for punching above their weight, especially when they won the Bouclier de Brennus with the eighth largest budget two years ago, but when it came to their wage bill, only Toulon, Toulouse and Clermont spent more.
The exact wage bills of each club are not on record, there is simply a ranking of the clubs, but in reality the salary figures are not that relevant in any case.
As Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal explained to the Midi Olympique last season, players do not receive all their remuneration from the club.
“With five or six players we put in place a system, which is completely legal and not at all secret, that allows some of their salary to be paid in a way that doesn't fall under the cap,” explained Boudjellal.
“Along with Jonny Wilkinson we created a business that commercialised the products of his brand 10.
“That business makes money through caps, t-shirts, polos etc. of Jonny. Should the money brought in and the image rights count under the salary cap? I don't think so. Of course these are only top-ups to his salary, and constitute six-figure sums, not seven.”
This is the crux of it. The actual salaries offered tell only part of the story. The complementary perks are just as important, and why Southern Hemisphere clubs are struggling to keep hold of their players.
Where the Irish had their tax breaks to keep internationals playing for the provinces, other clubs offer free accommodation, club cars and other perks for players and their families.
These tactics are not just restricted to France, with Brian Smith, Mark Cueto and the late Leon Barwell among those to have pointed the finger at Premiership clubs who they believed to be breaching the cap.
It is also very difficult to compare Irish wage levels with clubs in France and England, with the central control blurring the picture in terms of how much the provinces really spend on their squads.
So while there is clearly more money on offer in France, the budget numbers in themselves are virtually meaningless.