French club v country battle gets ugly

Date published: March 19 2015

The world's richest league packed with the highest paid players? Check!

An underperforming national team struggling to compete at the top level? Check!

A battle between club and country where the clubs have become more important than the national teams? Check!

French rugby took a step closer to English football as the national team and Clermont Auvergne are at loggerheads over the fitness of fly-half Camille Lopez.

Les Bleus released a statement on Wednesday night saying that Lopez would be out for four to six weeks, to be replaced by Maxime Machenaud in the French squad.

While it had been revealed after Sunday's win in Italy that Lopez was suffering from a severely bruised knee, there was no explanation given when he was forced to withdraw from the squad in the press release.

On Thursday morning Philippe Saint-André shed a little more light on the matter, while also adding to the confusion, as he could barely contain his anger at the situation.

"Camille trained on Wednesday morning without any problem or any strapping. He even kicked," explained Saint-André.

"Then on Wednesday evening ASM (Clermont) and their medical staff decided he needed four to six weeks rest.

"We spoke to Camille and he had some doubts. I need players who have no doubts. Camille didn't have any on Wednesday morning. On Wednesday evening he did, he was troubled.

"Clermont think he needs to rest. The Clermont doctor (decided) without examining him, using the images we sent because we are transparent with the clubs.

"Today, what's serious is that a quarter-final of the Champions Cup is more important than France v England," he added. "We'll see if Camille is on the pitch against Northampton."

So far, so troubling, and reminiscent of constant withdrawals we see in international football.

However the debacle doesn't stop there.

Clermont were quick to respond, with sporting director Jean-Marc Lhermet telling RMC that his medical staff had no input on Lopez's withdrawal.

And rather than transparency, he went as far as to accuse to the French set-up of blocking the clubs from keeping tabs on their players.

"Does it not seem like an aberration to say that? I'm surprised by Philippe Saint-André's statements. It's not the reality," he said.

"The clubs have no power of the national teams. If France want to play a player, whether the club likes it or not, the player will play. I don't understand his position. The medical staff at Clermont don't decide anything over whether a player plays for France or not. The club's medical staff don't decide a thing. Camille is injured, that's why he isn't playing. I don't understand this position. Camille is injured and that's why he's not keeping him.

"We had a lot of trouble getting access to Camille Lopez's medical file. We've only received a few shots yesterday, but we'd been trying since Monday to find out what our player was suffering from.

"It's surprising because we've been trying since Monday to find out what state our player is in. There was a form of obstruction to give us the scans taken by the French medical staff."

The question now, is what happens next? Lopez faces a race against time to be fit for the Champions Cup quarter-final against Northampton on April 4, and there will certainly be some who feel that Clermont's priority was to ensure he'd be ready.

While that might be true, this is not the first time Clermont have been at war with the national side. In October, Wesley Fofana came back from a training camp with a hamstring problem, infuriating coach Franck Azéma who accused les Bleus of amateurism in making him run in wet conditions and trainers when they had already been warned he had a problem.

The new agreement between clubs and federation at the start of this season was meant to be the first step towards greater co-operation between the two sides.

Judging by this latest controversy, it's a while before we see a balance struck.

And who's the real victim? Well that would be Lopez. Arguably the form fly-half in Europe heading into the Six Nations, he not only looks utterly devoid of confidence after six weeks with les Bleus, but it also looks like he might be watching the World Cup from his living room.

By Paul Eddison